Guide to Living poor and looking the part!

It's difficult to park this outside your shack and plead poverty.

It’s difficult to park this outside your shack and plead poverty.

“We hates us some poor people. First, they insist on being poor when it is so easy to not be poor. They do things like buy expensive designer belts and $2500 luxury handbags”. I read this line and agreed with it fully before understanding where the writer was going. If there’s one thing you do today, make your way here to read the whole blog, it’s most enlightening.

It’s not just poor people we pass judgement on, we also do it on friends who are going through tough times, we expect them to live by “our logic”. ” I would have sold that car and tablet by now if I was in their situation”. Really?

It’s very difficult to be a poor person. There is an invisible social code that one must learn, know by heart and live by. Don’t believe me? Listen to everyone around you and you’ll hear it: “if only they would stop wasting their money on liquor and clothes they wouldn’t be so poor”. Every Poor Person’s Guide to Living and Looking Poor, henceforth referred to as “The Poverty Handbook”.

Rule number one in the Poverty handbook: don’t do anything that makes you appear like you are having a good time. Dressing well is a no-no, I mean, you are poor for heaven’s sake!

Growing up I didn’t know what poverty was, we had what we had and what we didn’t have we didn’t know. So all was good. Imagine my shock when I was told I grew up in a poor village? What? So wearing shorts in freezing winter was poverty, I just thought legs were meant to freeze in winter, everyone around me thought the same. What, socks? No, those were a luxury item and only a few kids could afford luxuries like that.

“Poor But Clean” is a T-shirt slogan I grew up around, I didn’t own one, and I’m glad I didn’t but I quickly learnt that poor folk were generally regarded as “unclean”, hence the need to make the declaration. I guess the poor folk from my village chose to ignore this rule from the Poverty Handbook because bathing was a ritual there. Ok, so maybe I reluctantly partook of this ritual in my formative years but I knew my grandmother loved me to a point, she loathed a filthy grandchild. Left to my own devices I would have cheated my way around taking this expected daily bath.

Mind you, playing out in the fields didn’t excuse you from a full body scrub, the local river served as an alternative bath place. Peer pressure made sure you too wanted to show off your high regard for bodily hygiene. So weekends and school holidays found us bathing by the river.

The Poverty Handbook must also have some rule about how poor folk must avoid saving money to treat themselves to “expensive” items(read “items that are regarded as a sure sign of upward social mobility into a not-so-poor social class”). Those poor people who defy this rule and save a few bob to treat themselves to these “luxury” items are clearly frowned upon: “I mean really, what’s the logic of installing satellite television whilst living such abject poverty?” Now, hold on, why do we expect logic from poor folk when the authors of the Poverty Handbook themselves are not best friends with logic?

I fraternize with plenty of middle class folk who are barely holding it together but are sporting the latest iPhone and thinnest tablet. Such folk would use the latest iPad to confirm that their bank balance is still at zero, the miracle didn’t happen, but frown upon “poor” Jerry spending his last cents to acquire a “dish”, township slang for satellite TV (to the uninitiated). The authors of the Poverty Handbook also forgot to include some well-known celebrities who think it’s logical to buy a R4m car on installment. I mean really now, give poor people a break. They too deserve their own illogical choices.

Not that I’m one to support the idea of a BMW 7-series parked outside a shack, hell No. That person has no claim to being poor, they are just a middle-class slob going through an identity crisis.

I have seen people frown on “poor” Zandi dressing her two-year-old in Nike sneakers “knowing fully well that she is on the government grant”. Surely she should leave these sort of “illogical” choices to broke middle-class and rich parents, only they deserve to spend money they do not have. The irony of it all is Zandi probably never swiped a credit card to buy the sneakers.

The most demeaning page of the Poverty Handbook has to be the one titled “If you can’t feed them don’t breed them!”, mostly seen on SUV-type vehicles headed towards middle-class and rich suburbs. This is one bumper sticker that always single-handedly manages to up my blood pressure considerably any time of the day. I’ve had visions of myself driving a monster truck that would ride roughshod over any SUV bearing the said sticker, because I’ve concluded such people are not too bright(read stupid) and medication to cure their sickness is proving very elusive to discover.

The supposed logic of this part of the Poverty Handbook is that to get rid of poverty the poor should refrain from procreating, I mean, after all, only food provision qualifies one to be a good parent, right? Let’s see, if poor people stopped having children that would wipe out two thirds of the world and we would have plenty of space to drive our SUVs, right?

The scary part of this logic is that children who struggle to adjust to the rigors of life are mostly from these “let’s breed because we can feed them families”. Poor folk somehow learn to go by without and adjust to their circumstances. The people consuming most of the designer mental health drugs like Prozac are not the poor folk, it’s the folk bearing those “don’t breed if you are” stickers.

Besides, it is the height of hypocrisy to suggest that the act of procreation be there for the sole enjoyment of the upper classes of society, I mean really now, a monopoly on sex?

In my next life, I will come back a Dictator-President-of-the -World-for-Life, “Your Highness” will do thank-you. And I will introduce a Handbook for the rich(and famous): first rule in the book: Money and Fame do not equip your to perform social analysis, keep your Guide To Living In Poverty to yourselves, after all you need more common sense than poor folk.

The authors of the Poverty Handbook are the first to scream that “we are all different you know, we don’t want the same out of life”. Yet, the poor and financially unfortunate are very uniform because frankly “I don’t see why you need satellite television if you are poor”. How about entertainment? Are poor folk not entitled to entertainment? Granted, having a top of the range full bouquet of channels might be pushing the limits of acceptability into the struggling classes but poor people need their daily dosage of entertainment just like the rich bigots.

I’m one those poor souls who was endowed with the special gift of losing important pieces of paper and books all the time. Steve Jobs and the rest of the geniuses at Apple became demigods for me when they invented the iPad. Everything that needs recording is in the tablet. Whilst the super rich see it as an unnecessary luxury(in the hands of the poor), it is a life saver for me. My morning prayers are followed by a very discernible nod in the direction of the Apple Company in California. I guess if it came to sacrificing this gadget in the face of dire financial straits, I would have to sell the clothes off my back before parting with it.

I guess the Poverty Guide to looking poor and financially struggling has not really sank in my head yet. Tasked with designing a replacement for “Poor But Clean” T-shirt I would be very comfortable with one that said “Financially stressed but still with my iPad”.

Vanity is also a chapter in the Guide to living with Poverty(and looking poor). Most people dress really well irrespective of where they come from, and when things really become tough, this is the one area they will not allow to give them away. Sort of like the rich sticking to the sports cars to keep up appearances of all being well when they hit the hard times. Who gave the rich monopoly over vanity?

What it comes down to my friend(thanks Alanis Morissete), is to each according to his own devices, rich or poor. Otherwise we become hypocrites like this lady here:

“There was a woman who looked out of the window, and complained to her husband about how dirty the new neighbours washing was and made fun of her neighbour for not knowing how to do laundry properly. She complained about her neighbour to her husband every day until one day, she looked out the window and to her surprise, the neighbor had beautifully clean laundry hanging on the line. The woman expressed her surprise to her husband that the neighbour had finally learned to do laundry decently. The husband said he knew why. He said he had gotten tired of his wife’s complaining and gotten up very early that morning and washed their windows!”(source unknown).


16 responses

  1. This is a gem! I cannot say more, it says it all!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for reading Mama D, much appreciated.


  3. Sydney, you have the gift of making life while making me cry. Thank you for writing this piece. I know you write to us from your corner of the world, but your words can, do, and will resonate everywhere on our little planet.


    1. Leni, as always, I am grateful for you taking the time to read what I write. I am really grateful, more so for your efforts in ensuring that others get to see my work too.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on UnDefined.


    1. Hey Deusilene, I’m really grateful that you have reblogged this to your readers. Thank you.


      1. You’re welcome! 😉


  5. Leni said it all, Sydney. You just have this amazing gift for cutting to the chase, especially when you’re giving us life gems like this one. No other writer I know can blend humor, wit and razor-sharp insight as skillfully and unpretentiously as you do. Takes my breath away every time. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Cynthia, thank you so much for reading and your wonderful encouragement. Truly humbled.


  6. So true, Sydney. Apparently, it’s fine to live it up on credit, but not to save up for treats. Come to think of it, why would poor people automatically be better money managers than the well off? Then there is the differentiation between the “deserving poor” and the “riff-raff”. Urgh. They’ve never read the bit about casting the first stone…. or cleaning their own window before they criticise the neighbours’ washing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading Heidi. I know all about “deserving poor” vs “riff-raff”, as if poor people have a choice about where they end up. Cynthia said it best elsewhere that it’s so easy to sit in judgement when we have never taken even a single step in someone else’s shoes, and we feel justified to judge.


  7. Great piece of writing!! I so enjoyed reading this and my only wish…is that there was a The Poverty Handbook when I was growing up in my single parent, welfare recipient household. Growing up poor wasn’t easy but I treasure my experiences because it has given me a unique insight into the world around me. Being content and at peace is worth more than anything I could ever ask.


  8. Tshepo Clive Marema | Reply

    Awesome read Syd, you’ve nailed my brother, who are we to judge others really, at the end of the day, we need to realise that all these possessions we are obsessing over are not ours we are just custodians through God’s grace, he has just entrusted us with these resources that we now tend to define ourselves with. I shudder to think what we’ll do the take it all fizzles away. The day where we need to account will come.

    Bless yo Syd and regards to the family as well.


  9. Your Highness, you revived my fury about people whom I hear talking about poor people being able to buy designer shoes and such. I haven’t found a way to explain that I wore designer clothes when I was poor; I got them from yard sales. You revived my fury with people who judge poor people without any true knowledge of what being poor is like, and without any sense that the tables can turn in a jiffy. You chose a great story to wrap up your post! When we judge others, we must check out our own ability to see clearly.

    You remind me of how impatient I get with people who forget that we make decisions based on our circumstances. If I was in someone else’s shoes, I would probably make the same decisions. You must admit that the odds are at least 50/50.

    My mother took great pains to make sure we looked as wealthy as possible with as little expense as possible. My brother and I laughed about this as he scraped every bit of tomato paste out of a can, and comparison-shopped every week from the grocery store ads, like our mother taught us, even though he had a very good-paying job. I have a clear memory of my mother telling me about when she and her mother ate their one daily shared can of beans in their room in a boarding house. She continued to feel one step away from that table, and reminded us that we were, too.

    I am intrigued that my state implemented a program that encourages people who are below a certain income level to save money. The state pledges to match a percentage of the savings, if the poor person puts aside a few dollars every week. At the end of the year, the person can access the pot, and use it for education or vacation or to pay bills or whatever they want. One of the arguments for this is to starve loan sharks who lend money one day that will be repaid a day or two later from regular income (payday loans, predator loans), and they make way to much interest doing so. I cringe when I imagine the thoughts of the people in the drivers’ seats of the vehicles that sport the bumper sticker you described, as they oversee the way that the poor people use their savings account. Tsk tsk tsk…no matter how the poor person spends it, it’s wrong, unless they spend it the one way that the particular “superior” person declares is The Right way.

    You are generous to state that only 2/3 of the world is poor. Even if only that many people disappear, who will work in the sweat shops, farm fields, and mansions? Then, workers would be in high demand, and be more able to demand fair wages…and better. Maybe the bumper sticker crowd has a good point, in a horrid way. If only they could see it.

    I wish I could follow your link to the blog that you mention at the beginning of this article, but the link didn’t work.

    Thanks for all the thoughts that you provoke with your writing.


    1. Thank you for reading Grace. I will take time and go back to fix the link, I’m not a very patient editor. Someone else told me they struggled but I thought it’s ‘their’ problem, lol.

      There is a certain kind of joy that comes with the birth of a child, a joy that one can only know through experience. I think it’s the worst kind of selfishness to want that joy to be experienced by those that are financially ok. “Superiority” based on financial well being is just as bad as racism and sexism.


      1. Perhaps we are all financially “ok” by someone’s standards?

        Hmmmm racism, sexism, “moneyism”? “statusism”? You sum it up well in “bigotry”.


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