The Meaning of Poor
by River Kozhar


Photo Credit: Ryan McGuire

I used to be one of Them, and that fact will always remain with me as a brand of my privilege, like a fallen angel who can’t quite hide the scars that prove they once had wings. It is a humbling truth, almost a shame, and one that my people can sense without my telling them, like songbirds that have learned too well to be wary of snakes.

People don’t like to talk about money, with good reason. It’s like children discussing who got more ice cream on their cone, except the differences are huge, and no parent will come along to fix them. When people do discuss money, it’s usually to talk about their loans and mortgages, and how they envy the 1 percent. They rarely talk about how much they have.

I am a poor person. Someone who could, quite plausibly, spend the entirety of my life in poverty because I am too disabled to work. I am also, to defy your stereotypes, a young, excessively educated woman in my late twenties, who, apart from having a somewhat holier and less expansive wardrobe and an overdependence on my bicycle, looks indistinguishable from a middle-class person.

But saying I am poor does nothing to convey what that word means. Those who have lived on welfare or been poor for months have only glimpsed what poverty is like, comparable to taking a wrong turn into a sketchy alleyway and beelining it out of there, or having a car brush by without quite hitting you. The full transition takes a handful of years to occur, until everything you own—your coats, your glasses, your laptop—was bought in the After. Until you feel like you’ve been cut and pasted into the wrong scene, the wrong movie, one where everything you see is available for Them and not you.

Until you understand how little anyone cares.

But it is helpful, first, to look at what “poor” means according to the numbers, because despite some wayward opinions, struggling to afford what you want isn’t the same thing as having little money.

To simplify, there are two numbers of import. The first is the lower/middle class cut-off. Middle class can be defined as starting at 75 percent of the median income (it can also be defined as the middle 50 or 60 percent, or 50–150 percent of the median income). In Ontario, the median income was $35,600 in 2017 for an individual. Using this method, middle class thus starts at about $26,000 per year for an individual, which is also the approximate cut-off for eligibility for social housing; those with incomes below this might be said to be “lower class.” “Poor” and “low income” also usually reference this group as well, but both of these terms are also sometimes used to designate the second group: those living in poverty.

“Poverty” is the point at which you can’t afford basic necessities like food, rent, and clothing. Differences in living expenses between cities or regions, the difficulty of defining “basic necessities” (including whether you’re expected to rent a single room, live in a one-bedroom apartment, or have made it through the five- to ten-year waitlist for social housing), and one’s assumed skill at budgeting (or lack thereof), all complicate this general and qualitative definition of the poverty line, and it is constantly being debated. In Ontario, poverty has been defined as half the median income, or below $18,000 per year for an individual, though I have also seen $16,000 listed for the poverty line.

Just as it is important to know, by the numbers, when you are not actually poor or living in poverty, it is important to recognize when you are actually rich, and to consider the possibility that you might view “rich” as ordinary. If rich starts at upper class, then according to both the middle 60-percent method (using 2013 numbers), and the 150-percent-of-the-median-income method (using 2017 numbers), it would start at about $55,000 per year for an individual. If that seems too low for you, then perhaps you would agree that the top 10 percent of earners at the very least should merit this label. The top 10 percent of earners make (only) $80,000 per year for an individual (as opposed to a couple)—an income that is often considered, at least in casual conversation, as being part of the upper-middle class.

That those who earn incomes of $80,000, $100,000, or even $150,000 are not considered “rich” in most circles, and are instead normalized with the more familiar misnomer of “upper-middle class,” is a consequence of the fact that no one wants to label themselves as rich, or at least, not until they are so ridiculously rich that they can bask in it. They always want more: more security, more vacations, more classes, more space. They don’t want to see that they are doing so much better than most; that they have so much that they should be giving, rather than taking even more.

“Maybe Jesus was right,” I heard a multi-faith speaker say as he railed about the corruption money could cause, “when he said it would be harder for a camel to go through the head of a pin than for a rich person to get into Heaven.” But he was middle class, and speaking to a group of almost entirely middle- and upper-middle-class people as if they were all Not Rich. As if “rich” were always some phantom executive, laughing in the faces of the rest of the world.

But this silences those living in real poverty. This sidesteps classism, ableism, injustice. This pretends that middle class is poor, and working class is poverty.

This erases our existence.

While the numbers are a helpful starting point, living in poverty is as much an experience of discrimination as it is a number, as much a reality of being unable to afford necessities as it is the reality that no one cares.

The system itself upholds that discrimination.

Take, for instance, the social-assistance and social-supports hierarchy. While there are a couple other groups of people, including those who work part-time for minimum wage, who frequent soup kitchens, the majority of us draw most or all of our income from the government, and how much we get is based on a hierarchy that reflects the degree to which we are valued or blamed for our situations.

At the top are romanticized veterans, who, at the very least, make about $19,800 per year. Slightly below them—but still clearing the poverty line—are hard-working seniors, who receive about $18,300 per year if they have no other income. After a substantial drop down (at these incomes, a few thousand makes light years of difference) are disabled people, who make about $14,000 per year if we can’t work, because no one likes someone who can’t work but at least we have a somewhat-acceptable excuse. At the bottom are those who don’t have a good enough excuse, and who, consequently, only get $8,800 per year on welfare, an income that can make the decision between being homeless and starving a very real one. (Their kids, however, have special status because they are not to blame for the “failures” of their parents, so you’ll see ads saying things like “no kid should go hungry”—with the not-so-subtle message that some adults should, or that it doesn’t matter if they do—or “end youth homelessness.”)

Students are the black sheep of this group, honorary members ascribed a title that almost never truly fits. As a general rule, students are much richer than they—or the general public—perceive them to be. Most students receive gifts from their parents, for instance—Christmas presents, birthday presents, a used laptop, a winter coat—as well as free meals when they visit or on holidays, free moving services, insurance through their parents or their school, cottage time or other free experiences; all in all, this makes most students effectively middle or upper-lower class rather than living in poverty, regardless of their official income. Even student loans after the fact are a sign of wealth: in Ontario, if you’re living below the poverty line you can repeatedly defer your loan payment for six months at a time without penalty, and if you live in poverty for ten years straight, the government will begin paying off your student loan for you, and it’ll be gone after fifteen years.

I wearily deem students, like seniors and veterans, the “rich-poors”: the middle-lower class of people who fit between poverty and full-time minimum wage, who have incomes that people on welfare and disability envy.

But students and seniors are, of course, the ones who get the discounts. Their excuse for being poor is acceptable or pitiable. Their business matters.

They matter.

To some degree, these value judgements, and classism as a whole, is perpetuated in a vicious cycle: you work hard to support yourself and do fine, and yet there are others who are living in poverty; ergo, there must be some reason for it; ergo, there must be something different about them, or wrong with them.

I am reminded of a conversation I had once, when I heard a woman railing about how social assistance was a waste of taxpayer money. I asked her if she really didn’t care about disabled people or seniors or veterans.

“I don’t mean them,” she had replied. “I mean everyone else: the people scamming the system because they don’t want to work like the rest of us.”

But I had just named the majority of the poor community: her image of poor people was like a phantom from a bedtime story, constructed from pieces of hate and fear, sewn together by ignorance.

And, without the proper communication, without the proper self-reflection and starting real conversations about how much money we all make in relation to one another, her line of thinking made sense. If we are living in poverty when so many others aren’t, then there must be an explanation. We must be lazy, or stupid, or have something wrong with us. We must be different.

But the uncomfortable truth is that we’re ordinary. Yes, we have more than our fair share of disabilities, abusive families, and stories of heartbreak, but we also span all ages and genders, and come from all backgrounds financially, ethnically, and educationally. Most of us look and act the same as everyone else; we just have higher levels of cynicism. We are people unremarkable enough to go unseen, and yet remarkable enough to survive: to survive the horror stories that every poor person accumulates over the years like a lacework of scars across our flesh, and the daily feeling of being unseen and unwanted that can do far more damage.

That, I think, is really what defines a “poor person”—their grit. Grit is what makes me admire the legendary few who have lived on welfare for decades, paragons for having survived both starvation and despair while the world scrapes them off their boots. “Poor person” is a brand they burn into our flesh when we are cast out to die, and it becomes part of our identity, whether hidden, or flaunted like a swear word in the face of a world that has only sought to crush us, furious and proud and betrayed and hopeless all in the same breath.

But poor, poor is a word that is harder to define. And despite my titular pronouncement, there is no one meaning of poor. It depends on your own particular map of life, on what you value the most, and in what manner having that taken away will destroy you. That deeper meaning of poor lies in the spaces between the words, the subtle notes of feeling and injustice and identity that you can only hear after so many years of silence have passed. It lies in the ignorance of so many everyday moments, of the social exclusion that is such an ordinary part of this culture. It lies in the emotional vulnerability that can rip the tears from your eyes when you realize you can’t give your kids the world, or your pets their medication. When you realize it’s not only you that suffers for this injustice, but the people you love. When you look around and see that there are people just like you who benefit from the same system that cast you and yours out with little explanation, and no justice.

For those of you who have followed me here—you, the financially privileged, and you, others in poverty who just came to hear your own voice—I leave you at the mouth of this alley with a single message. Those people sitting there huddled in the shadows, wide-eyed and forgotten, weary and battered down, are you. They are you just as the trans and the Black and the disabled and the abused-instead-of-parented are you. In their memories you will see your own, their voices, the voices of us all. In their hearts, you would find someone worth loving.

Because another meaning of poor is simply Other. The outcasts. Those who must be different, because aren’t we all? Those whom we have all contributed to casting out of a system that has never been fair.

Some have been lost to hate and bitterness, but that, too, is justified, understandable: to be held with compassion given the hell they have been forced to live. Others are reaching out their hands, calloused and bony, for yours. Hope that someday the world will change is the tiny fire on the grimy stones beside them, those wavering flames that have been their only warmth through the long dark of the years.

I cannot speak for them, but I am one of them.

—From CNQ 108 (Fall 2020/Winter 2021)

River Kozhar has published in 40+ literary magazines. Her non-fiction (under this nom-de-plume) engages with disability, poverty, ferality, trauma, and oppression. She is a young (disabled) retiree and a social justice advocate. She lives in Kingston, Ontario.

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