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Some Perils of Poverty

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A girlfriend of mine went to Planned Parenthood to get her NuvaRing prescription filled and was told by a Chanel-knockoff-wearing volunteer that they were out and didn’t know when new stock would arrive. She muttered quietly that she didn’t have the money to get it at the drugstore instead. The volunteer said, “It doesn’t cost that much more.”

One of the many reasons women use Planned Parenthood is the discounted cost of their birth control. Suggesting someone take an otherwise $7-15 prescription to a pharmacy where it can cost upwards of $80 is ignoring the reality of that person’s financial situation. It’s as if they’re saying, “Oh, you impoverished types. We know you have a couple hundred dollars stashed somewhere.”

My girlfriend was at a loss as to what to do. She had to choose between not having sex until she could save up the money or forgo paying one of her bills. I suggested she have that internal conversation out loud in front of the person who blithely told her to go to a pharmacy:

“So, it’s sex in the dark or not being able to wash up afterwards. Hmm. I could just cut back on groceries. ‘Oh look dear, I’ve laid out a nice plate of rice cakes and raisins for us.’ If I don’t pay the electric bill then we can have sex without being distracted by the heater kicking on.”

For the single gal who chooses to spend a little less on groceries, this changes up the booty call a little. “Why don’t you come over for some sex, and bring some canned goods.”

The thwarted view so many Haves have of the Have-Nots reminds me of the English speaker who insists the non-English speaker does in fact know more English than s/he is letting on. Really, unless they’re a double agent, what is it you think they expect to gain by pretending they don’t know what you’re saying?

It’s not just a rich-people thing to make gross assumptions about the poor. Even the moderately well off are known to engage in some pretty off-the-wall thinking when it comes to the less fortunate. Some of them engage in a kind of awkward duplicity in that they treat you as if have what they have even as they know you don’t. They gauge the high or low of a price you’re asked to pay by what they can afford, without regard to what percentage that is of your income. The partnering thought for these kinds of people is that having something, even if it’s not what you need, is somehow better than having nothing at all.

In my own impoverished days, I was thrice the recipient of food drives who offered bags of donated canned goods to qualifying families. While some would argue that beggars can’t be choosers, I would ask why someone would have something in their cupboards they themselves wouldn’t eat in the first place. Case in point: beets.

Yes, I know there are tens of dozens of people across our great nation who just love beets, but that doesn’t explain the massive number of beet cans finding their way into donation boxes while at the same time never showing up at cookouts, potlucks, and family gatherings. It’s the same with cans of asparagus, creamed corn, and those things that masquerade as green beans: wax beans. I’ve never seen any of these served on any dinner table and I’ve never seen them offered in any buffet or on any restaurant menu. I’ve seen beets served – and promptly ignored by everyone under the age of 80 – as if it’s some kind of culinary requirement that isn’t really meant to be eaten – like brussels sprouts or waxed fruit.

It is also often the case that by the time someone is called upon to donate a canned good, it has been sitting in their cupboard for several years. I’ve stared down many a passed expiration date and/or bulging can, wondering if my already strained budget could afford the risk of an emergency room visit for a bout of food poisoning. The family that stays together projectile vomits together, and all that. I think some people, under the guise of “sharing,” are just spring cleaning to make room for what most Americans consider real food – like green beans (that are green) and corn (that is whole).

So, my girlfriend ended up taking the bus to a Planned Parenthood on the other side of town to get her prescription. This was on the advice, not of the volunteer who had directed her to the pharmacy across the street, but of another woman in the waiting room who had been through this before. “She’s nice enough,” the woman said about the volunteer, “but don’t take her word on anything. She thinks the NuvaRing goes on your finger.”

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About Diana Hartman

Diana is a USMC (ret.) spouse, mother of three and a Wichita, Kansas native. She is back in the United States after 10 years in Germany. She is a contributing author to Holiday Writes. She hates liver & motivational speakers. She loves science & naps.
  • Me too!!

  • Here’s my guide to giving:

    Our school has a Thanksgiving basket drive. And they provide a list that the donors go by. One thing left off the list was gravy. I bought a couple of items and included gravy. It was an oversight on the planners part maybe. I am vegetarian but I agree give people what they want not what you want to give them. That’s how I give. Otherwise you are just clearing your pantry.

    That’s why normally I use United Way monthly cash gifts. They are not my favorite charity but I hope it helps.

    Then there is the tax writeoff: I give away lots of good stuff to resale stores that support battered women. Then there is the annual neighborhood garage sale. One must be prepared to literally give away stuff. Folks won’t pay much over a penny a pound for clothes usually. Housewares and art go pretty well. I make some cash and can’t write this off but heck I know I am helping some really poor immigrants (lots of Illegals around here) and regular folks too, especially when I sold 3 A/C window units (2 like new) for a fraction of what they cost me.

    Finally, learned this from visiting India–never give cash to people on the streets begging. One this is against the law in most states and two you can get hurt doing so. Some friends ignored this when they went to India and got mobbed or robbed.

    I think that giving food you don’t want is cheating IMHO.


  • Thanks for something to think about, I admit to donating items cleared out of the cupboards.

    It’s very unfortunate that food pantries frequently fall into the category of less sexy charities. People seem to assume that the churches take care of everything and focus more on cute or politically awesome charities in their day to day lives, when they might have neighbors looking at that forlorn can of beets.

    Also, Planned Parenthood should be training their volunteers better, but so not the point.

  • Diana — This is a beautifully-crafted, justifiably angry and important article.

    The fact that other commenters have concentrated on what’s in the Food Pantry bags you describe instead of the fact that there really ARE poor people is sadly and irritatingly revealing.

    There are different forms and degrees of poverty in the US and everywhere around the world. Most working- and middle-class folks have to live on a budget and do without many of the things they’d like to have. But it’s a whole other matter when you have to make surreal decisions, like filling a prescription OR having money for dinner.

    The changes wrought by the economic collapse notwithstanding, there is still a large population of people who pay $5.00 for a cup of coffee at Starbucks and think nothing of it, and an increasing population of folks who hope they can find a CAN of coffee at the supermarket on sale for $5.00 (instead of the usual $7, $8 and $9).

    My own financial circumstances have changed greatly in recent years (down, not up). I stay home a lot, because just leaving the house costs money, and eating in a decent restaurant, which used to be a 2 to 3-times-a-week routine is now a 2 to 3-times-a-year treat — yet friends keep telling me I should get out more(!) It really pisses me off.

    I think many Americans have both a lack of understanding of what it means to be poor (or poorer), as well as contempt for people who are poor, because acknowledging that normal, decent, hard-working people CAN be poor is too threatening to contemplate; they prefer to believe people are poor because they’re lazy or extravagant or bad — otherwise, it could just as easily happen to them!

    Thank you for trying to remind BC readers that poverty is real, an outrage in a country as rich as ours (still is), and a constant source of stress, struggling and juggling for those who go without — not just what they’d like, but most of what they truly need.

  • dang, and i put that jar of pickled okra in the boy scout donation bag. oh, the horror!

  • maskay

    I love creamed corn. I’m guilty of donating it because I usually have a few extra–I didn’t realize it was not a popular item, my whole family likes it.

    I agree about was beans though–only real green beans are allowed in my house.

  • i don’t understand people who don’t like spinach, but i would never put a can of spinach in a donation box because it’s too specific to too few people…green beans, on the other hand, have much wider appeal…i think those little tiny corn are funny, but i wouldn’t eat one…

  • I don’t understand anyone who doesn’t like beets. They’re incredibly SWEET, and they taste delicious. The canned type are kind of lame, but they still have that great beet-sweetness. Beets seem to be a great joke-butt, though. I remember a Louie Anderson routine where he cried out, “I want BEETS!” and it was so funny, but hard to pinpoint why. I guess beets are to vegetables what monkeys are to animals. They’re just funny. No explanation needed.