But, for the most part, the site paints a really grim picture. An average working-class family, or a family with a spouse in the military, or a college student/recent college grad just can't afford to stay afloat like they used to. It's appalling that there are so many situations where a hard-working person who has made good choices can no longer afford the basic necessities of life.
So, naturally, there has to be some jerk out there who wants to swoop in and get everybody's attention by calling all these poor people irresponsible liars. That jerk has created this photo, which has gone viral in social media:
Well, aren't you just the picture of austerity, Miss Frugal College Student? There is just something so annoying about her "blame the victim" attitude here. And yes, she makes some good points about being able to cut back on the items we deem necessities, which in her examples are the smartphone and the iPad. (I'm not even going to touch her example about the new car, because she's not clear on whether that means she has no car at all, or she bought a used car, or she uses public transit. And as a college student a car might not be a necessity, but it kind of is for a lot of people. So I'm not going to analyze that one because there are too many unknowns.)
But, minor good points aside, this girl is annoying. I'm sure the laid-off auto factory worker who has gone into massive debt to pay for his child's medical expenses is really grateful for this random college student's wisdom on how to stay financially afloat.
So, I was kind of happy when another article went viral on Facebook, this one debunking the "I am not the 99%" poster and basically calling it a hoax. The article's author, who goes by the screen name Buster Blonde, completed a full analysis of the living expenses of a college student and basically concluded that there is no way this student could possibly afford these expenses working 30 hours a week at a minimum wage job.
Buster Blonde argues that pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is much more difficult to pull off for today's college students than it was for college students even ten years ago. Put simply, tuition and living expenses are up, and available financial aid is down.
Now, I'm not saying it's impossible to pull off a situation like that of the alleged poster student. We don't know enough about her particular life--I mean, assuming she is a real person--to fairly assess how realistic and/or typical it is. But, as Buster Blonde points out, it's unlikely that the girl is doing all this on her own; she must have some form of financial support from her parents, whether that be actual help with tuition, access to her parents' health plan, or living with her parents during the summer. Which is Buster Blonde's main point: you're more likely to be successful if your parents were successful. The people who truly struggle are those who have absolutely nobody to fall back on, the people whose extended families are also struggling.
Take, for example, the refugees from Hurricane Katrina. I, like many people, watched the coverage back in 2005 from my middle-class living room and wondered, If I lived there, would that have been me? Hard to say, but it seems likely that the answer would be no. I would have hopped in my car and driven my family to safety. I would have checked into a hotel or stayed with out-of-state family. But some of the New Orleans citizens didn't have cars, or else they couldn't afford the gas to get them far enough away to be safe. And they didn't have credit cards or relatives they could borrow from, or relatives who would house them out of state. Everybody they knew was poor and without resources.
And there are plenty of people growing up in Chicago and in every other city who are caught in the same cycle of poverty. Bottom line: It's hard to pull yourself up from the bootstraps if you don't have somebody else helping you pull.
But while Bootstraps College Student's "blame the victim" attitude seems particularly offensive in light of the cases of these poorest citizens, I kind of can't help but think about how her attitude is also relevant to the rest of us.
I have no idea what percent I'm in, but I know I rank among the average citizens who can afford everything I need but not necessarily everything I want. And obviously the parameters of that group are very nebulous, because the line between needs and wants is sometimes blurry, and besides almost everybody wants something that he or she can't afford. But let's say that there's a pretty big group that ranks somewhere in between completely destitute and filthy rich. And this group is obviously a continuum. The person who cannot afford the medication she "wants" in order to relieve her chronic migraines is a lot worse off than the person who cannot afford that dream vacation she wants.
But it just seems like it's getting harder and harder for anybody to afford the wants and needs, no matter where you fall on the continuum. And I know I'm not coming to any giant new conclusion here. It's not like I'm just now learning about our crappy economy. It's just, in reading the people on We Are the 99%, and the story of the hypothetical college student, I just can't help but feel as hopeless as some of those young people who write into the website.
For example, hypothetical college student says that she doesn't even eat out once a month. Now, nobody's going to start a nonprofit to help families who always have to cook at home, and not being able to afford restaurants is hardly a criterion for poverty. Still, it seems sad when hard-working people can't even afford to go to someplace like Chipotle once in awhile. Or Starbucks or Dunkin' Doughnuts or McDonald's. Again, I'm not saying it's tragic. I'm just saying that a hard-working person should be able to afford to treat herself to a store-bought latte once in awhile. After all, the employees at these outfits need to keep their jobs, too.
And what about all the other things that you kind-of-have-to-buy-but-kind-of-don't? Let me run down my morning for a few examples:
This morning I got up and checked my email, Facebook, blogs, etc. Home Internet access: certainly not along the lines of food, water, and shelter when it comes to basic needs, but I think it's a monthly expense that most of us deem important.
Next I took my kid to preschool and there was a sign indicating that tuition payments are due November 1. Now, obviously I could have chosen not to send Nathan to preschool, but I certainly don't think anybody ever said, "Wow, look at you, Mrs. Richie Rich, sending your kid to preschool."
Following that, I worked out at the gym. Now, the gym is, for sure, a luxury. But still, exercise is a necessity, and when you live in a climate like the one I do it's pretty hard to exercise outdoors year-round. Sure, you can work out in your home, but then you probably have to buy some sort of exercise equipment. And yes, you can exercise at home for free using free YouTube exercise videos and barbells you make out of water bottles filled with sand. But I don't think it's asking too much to be able to afford a gym membership or some piece of commercially-produced exercise equipment.
When I picked up my kid from school, there were notices indicating that parents could bring some sort of individually-wrapped store-bought treat for the class Halloween party. Having just read all the tales of woe from We Are the 99%, I thought about how hard a dumb preschool request like that would be for somebody who is really struggling financially. And what about Halloween costumes for your kids? And candy to give out to trick-or-treaters? Yes, you can get secondhand costumes, and technically you don't have to pass out candy, although I think most people who take their kids out to beg for candy from the neighbors find that the decent thing to do would be to reciprocate.
And that's just scratching the holiday surface. We're just on the verge of a season of food, gift, and decoration expenses. And what about birthdays? Aren't we forever buying gifts for other kids' birthday parties?
And no, you do not need three inflatable Halloween lawn decorations like the house around the corner from me has, but being remotely festive should not break you financially.
Maybe part of the problem is that we've reached a point culturally where many items we deem necessities weren't necessarily necessities for the previous generations. Excessive holiday decor. Enrichment activities for children, and a bunch of gear for these activities. A dumb giant celebration for every little occasion. Fancy home rennovations. Maybe our expectations are just too high for our collective financial stations in life.
Like, Martha Stewart Living has an article this month about advent gift ideas. You know, like you find a cute way to package 24 little daily gifts that your kids open up during the month of December as they count down to Christmas, like an advent calendar? Now, I'm not saying that Martha Stewart has her finger anywhere near the pulse of the average person's standard of living, but the very fact that advent gifts have become a thing suggests that too many things have become too much.
While the average person needs to just say no sometimes, and while there should be a magazine whose theme is "We get that you are of an educational/socioeconomic status that you enjoy reading for pleasure and have the disposable income to purchase magazines, but that doesn't mean you can afford a $300 sweater for an infant," the reality is that many of us are living in a culture where we are faced with a lot of financial demands. And no, you don't need a giant inflatable lawn display, but you should be able to send your kid to preschool and provide snacks for that preschool. And you should be able to stop and buy a sandwich at Subway once in awhile. You should be able to afford clothes from Target and an occasional trip to the movies. And I think, I think, there was a time when a working-class family could even afford to go on an annual vacation.
I guess my point is that while most people can make some cutbacks to their spending, we've gone too far when the only recipe for financial responsibility is to live out the existence of the girl on the poster. Even if she is fictional, the idea that anybody who doesn't live the most austere lifestyle imaginable is irresponsible and deserves to be poor just doesn't seem like the kind of standard we want to have in this country. Yes, there will always be misfortune, but for the average person, it just shouldn't be that hard.