What It Means To Be Poor In America

riverThere is a fascinating article I found on Frugaling about a poor person who wrote about why she made bad decisions, you can find the article here.  She explains why she smokes, eats junk food and has several kids by several different fathers.  The one thing that stuck out was the bad teeth component, as poor people often have bad teeth as Medicaid (health insurance for the poor) doesn’t cover braces. We had a hard time finding a dentist that would accept Medicaid when i was a kid.  When my sister needed braces the dentist allowed my mother to pay for it in monthly installment plans, it took her over three years to pay that debt.  Not many dentists would have the compassion to accept payment plans or wait that long for their money.  (Thanks Dr. Lincoln for your kindness).

$34,000 income places you in the top 1% of income in the world.
Everyone talks about the 1%, but if you make more than $34,000 you are in the top 1% of income in the world. Your earn more than nearly 7 billion people.  With the portrayal of the rise of the rich Chinese we forget that majority of the people there are dirt poor.  To be the top 1% in China requires an income of $91,000, which is achieved by a fourth of all Americans.  You’re thinking income is relative to the cost of living as $34,000 goes a lot farther in Vietnam, Asia or any third world country.  In my previous post about the Amerian Dream I wrote about my relatives who were middle class inVietnam yet had a lower standard of living than I did growing up poor

family on bikesI flew from Saigon in South Vietnam to Hanoi in North Vietnam in 2 hours.  When my relatives travel to the north it takes them days, none of them had ever flown in an airplane.  Around Saigon a family friend drove us around in a car, majority of Vietnamese travel by motor bike. Riding on the back of a motor bike is fun, until I realized how f ing dangerous that it is.  You would see entire families (as many as 5 people with little babies on board) riding on those things. No one obeys traffic laws, if you get hit by a car a helmet does absolutely shit.  The only good it does you is to keep your brains from splaterring onto the road.  Families on a motor bike getting hit by a car is such a daily occurence that no one flinches when that happens, I’ve seen several overturn bikes. 

On my last day we stopped by the family friend’s house which was no more than a shanty. It had a metal roof held up by thick  wood sticks with 10 people living in it.  There were no rooms, the beds were elevated on wood blocks.  Since it was dirt floors when it rains they’re unable to go anywhere, sometimes it can rains for weeks. He was embarassed that he was so poor, that was the first time I knew someone that lived like that. My heart went out to his family as I had never seen that type of poverty.

It’s a good thing that Americans (and Canadians) bitch about stuff, that means that our basic needs of food and shelter is met.  Once you go up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs towards being happy you get to bitch about first world problems. Diseases that kill millions (measles, malaria, polio) is eradicated in developed countries. There are billions who yearn to have the same freedoms and opportunities we all take for granted.  We got problems, but we ain’t go no problems.


  1. Well said Charles. I think people often times forget about how amazing Americans and Canadians have it relative to the rest of the world. I remember reading somewhere that simply the divident payments from about 1,050 shares of GE will provide more wealth than 97% of people in the world have. Perspective can sometimes be a hard thing to come by.
    Ryan @ Impersonal Finance recently posted…you vs. the economyMy Profile

  2. I always think about this kind of thing when I hear people complain about how they don’t have enough money.. yet they have three TVs in their home, all hooked up to cable boxes, plus laptops, tablets, mp3 players, tons of processed food in the pantry, brand-new cars in the driveway, etc etc. I can only guess that these people have no real concept of how the majority of the rest of the world lives (and even how some people within our own country live). It’s so important to be grateful for what you do have instead of wasting time and energy complaining about what you don’t.

    • Tat’s the beauty of being the land of plenty as we can bitch and moan on our way of self fulfillment. It seems trivial to complain about certain things but it’s a good thing, it means we aren’t starving or homeless.

  3. Great post Charles. Every now and then, money really starts to eat away at me. However, I know that we are doing better than others so stepping back and being grateful for what you have is important.
    Michelle recently posted…Should You Get a Prenup?My Profile

  4. I like this article. I visited India in 2005 and it blew my mind. I noticed that the people that were happy didn’t really seem to have a lot. I guess you can be happy without an Escalade. :)

  5. I think about this all the time. We’re supposedly in the top 10% of American incomes, which puts us in the top .1% of wealthiest people in the world. It’s really hard to complain about anything when you put your life in those terms…….
    Holly@ClubThrifty recently posted…Social Finance: Responsibility and ProfitMy Profile

  6. Thanks for the perspective, Charles. Things are incomprehensibly harder from a financial perspective outside of the US. Like you said, we don’t have any real financial problems here.

    We still ride scooters though, and in that arena it doesn’t really matter where you live. Brains splatter the same in Arizona as they do in Argentina.
    Done by Forty recently posted…Anchoring My ExpectationsMy Profile

  7. If you have a roof and food on the table you are better off than millions of people. In my village people are poor but no one is hungry. They build laminated and wood houses, and the whole family helps out. They have 6 or 7 kids, that will take care of them when they grow old. Three generations live under one roof so there is always someone to keep you company. The human wealth is fabulous. And no money can buy it.
    Pauline recently posted…What would you do with $200,000?My Profile

  8. Great article! Here in Romania, many of our top stars (TV hosts, usually) earn less than $5,000 per month and they are obviously extremely rich. Personally, if I were to earn $34,000 every year, I would be more than happy here :) But still I try to repeat every day that there are billions of people who do a lot worse than me and I should learn to be grateful for what I have, and not what I don’t.
    C. the Romanian recently posted…How I Reduced My Food Costs by 25% Without Going HungryMy Profile

  9. I just read that article, and it’s not that I don’t have sympathy for the plight of the poor…I absolutely know that there is is a lot of catch 22 when it comes to trying to get out of that situation. Like I need a job, but I can’t get a job unless I have decent clothes, and to get decent clothes I need a job. That’s GOT to be very frustrating. But here is what pissed me off about the article MOST: “It’s that now that I have proven that I am a Poor Person that is all that I am or ever will be.” Well, there ya go. I just can’t stand the victim mentality and that post was nothing but the victim mentality. If you think you are shit and all you’ll ever be is shit, then you WILL be shit. You will be absolutely, 100% right. All. of. the. time. So you’re frustrated with the system? So you struggle? I’m sure it’s got to be a nightmare, but somewhere deep down inside there has to be something that says, “but I will fight my ASS off to change my situation!” I will give it all I’ve got. Sorry for the rant…it’s just one of those human traits that bothers me the most. :)
    Tonya@Budget and the Beach recently posted…My Frugal Year…My Profile

    • I like this fired up Tonya. Garbage in garbage out, like you said if you think like shit you’ll b shit. Having a poor mindset means you’ll always be poor for the rest of your life. Lottery winners are the perfect example, more often their behavior is the reason for their loss in wealth.
      No government program or charities can help you if you don’t help yourself first.
      Charles recently posted…The Advantages Of YOLO In Your FinancesMy Profile

    • Can’t you read?….she said that “poverty cuts off your long term brain.”

      If you haven’t walked in her shoes you really can’t accurately judge.

  10. Thanks for the next round of travelogue. Here’s a snippet from one of mine.

    I used to go on dirt bike trips in Baja California with other riding buddies a decade or more ago. We encountered a lot of people living out in the sticks, where their houses were literally made of sticks. That didn’t matter to them. They thought seeing gringos on dirt bikes was awesome. We ate at local taquerias and sometimes had beers with local Mexican families at their houses (we brought the beer). We typically sat around and drank outside, because it was hotter inside their little houses. At one such stop, I had to go to the baño. They showed me where it was in the house. To my chagrin, I couldn’t find the door, so I just turned my back to the doorway, unzipped and relieved myself. When I came out of the baño, the little kids were laughing. I said, “¿Dónde está la puerta? (Where’s the door?)” They pointed to a piece of crumbling plywood leaning on the wall next to the doorway. I grinned, shrugged, and said, “Gracias.” It probably didn’t help that I also had a lot of dirt on my face from riding in the dust. I suppose they now had a story to tell their friends.

    If you want to read about one of our funny Baja trips, check out http://www.all-offroad.com/DirtBikes/Where2Go/Trips/Baja97_p1.html Keep clicking the on the “more to come” links at the bottom of each page to read the whole thing.

    I don’t have much to say about these visits to Baja other than finding out just how little it takes for people to live out in the sticks of Baja.
    Bryce @ Save and Conquer recently posted…Work That Builds CharacterMy Profile

  11. As usual, I enjoyed your post. How rich we are in America (relatively speaking) is something we almost never think about. It takes a post like this to remind us. Really makes you take a step back and change your perspective.
    DC @ Young Adult Money recently posted…10 Money Mistakes You Can Easily AvoidMy Profile

  12. I think that there is a lot of complaining going around in western culture but even the poorest of us have it better than the poorest of much of the world.
    Poor Student recently posted…How to Buy a Used Car if You Don’t Have Cash UpfrontMy Profile

  13. Another great post and something that I’ve been thinking about as well. Many in 1st world countries don’t understand what true poverty is. There are no safety nets like the ones they have here. I’m definitely agree with your assessment pertaining Maslow’s hierarchy of needs…though some have tried to discredit his work…I think it is highly relevant.

  14. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for your tireless work in trying to teach people how amazingly lucky and blessed we are to live in this country and have our “piddly” incomes of 35k, 50k, or 75k. I get so tired of people in this country whining about their situations, when, like Kali said, they’ve got three TVs, cable, laptops and all kinds of other gadgets and whatever. Let’s trade in some ignorance and foolishness for some wisdom here, you know? Life is much happier when you get a clue.
    Laurie @thefrugalfarmer recently posted…Steps To Self-Sufficiency and Why They’re Important to UsMy Profile

    • It’s a good thing that minimalism is making a comeback in this country. As the economy heals excessiveness is also on the rise. I had a family who “struggled” with finances, didn’t have $1000 in the bank but had a $350 monthly cell family plan. Unbelievable.
      Charles recently posted…How We Reached A Million Before 40My Profile

      • I just read an article somewhere that said consumer debt is on the rise here again in America, now that the economy is “picking up”, LOL. Yeah, the several hundred dollar cell phone plans are very commonplace up here too. I wonder how those people will feel about their “necessary” phone plans when the economy tanks and they can’t feed their kids? Just saw on the news this AM that beef prices are skyrocketing, and that beans and peas will also skyrocket in price due to the CA drought. Not good.
        Laurie @thefrugalfarmer recently posted…Steps To Self-Sufficiency and Why They’re Important to UsMy Profile

  15. You’re right when you say people bitch about stuff only when their basic needs are met (a very practical explanation of the Maslow’s hierarchy!). The rich don’t have real worries like the poor do. How many times do the rich or even the middle class wonder if they’ll have enough money to put food on the table tomorrow? Or whether the unexplained illness will go away on its own because basic healthcare is beyond affordance?
    Fehmeen – loans & lifestyle blog recently posted…10 Determinants of Interest Rates in MicrofinanceMy Profile

  16. My parents couldn’t afford braces for me either and guess what…..I didn’t get braces. To this day, my teeth aren’t perfectly straight but they are in good condition because of good dental hygiene and preventative checkups.

  17. You are so right that most of us are better off than millions of others around the world. I’ve always liked what Mother Teresa said, “There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty — it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love….” Here in the west I think many think they can overcome that hunger with more and more stuff, which leads to more and more debt, which leads to more and more unhappiness. I think we all need to stop and get to the root of it so that we can end the crazy cycle. Thanks for your reminders.
    Kathy @ SMART Living 365.com recently posted…Five Ways To Slay The Succubus of Crippling DebtMy Profile

  18. Wow! That was a powerful post, Charles. Thank you for sharing.
    That’s one of the things we love most about travelling – it takes you outside of yourself and forces you to take a look at the lives of people around you. The one thing that strikes me most about the people in the developing countries is their ability to be happy and content. Travelling to Thailand, the Philippines, and even the Dominican, there’s a lot more to not feel good about, yet – I think they are happier than we are here in America.
    There’s a lot of food for thought for sure. Thanks for your honestly and candor with this post!
    Anneli @thefrugalweds recently posted…Hi, we’re the frugalweds and we’re taking the Yakezie Challenge!My Profile

  19. Although we have it better than most the truth is that poverty is a relative thing. There are still people going hungry in our country. There are people who can’t afford health care. They live in areas that are considered unsafe and dangerous by most. The issue is that we could eradicate these issues if we chose to. We should appreciate everything we have but still recognize that there are neighbors who still have basic needs that aren’t met.
    Thomas @ i need money ASAP recently posted…Help Paying BillsMy Profile

  20. I backpacked around Southeast Asia in 2012 and it’s a really eye opening experience. I remember when I landed in Manila I was thinking to myself how much money I left (left corp America) and seeing people struggling.

    The months I spent traveling through every single country gave me a deeper appreciation of the true value of the dollar regardless of where I am.
    The Phroogal Jason recently posted…Infographic: Tipping Etiquette. How Much Should You Tip?My Profile


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