All professional artists do not have low incomes, but many do know what it’s like to struggle financially. If we do not personally have difficulty making ends meet, we probably know someone who does. In addition to the financial issues themselves, those who live on low incomes must also fight against myths about their finances and their lives overall.
Myth: People who are poor are only poor because they make bad choices when it comes to work and money.
Reality: The amount of money you have is the result of a wide variety of factors coming together. And while your own behavior does indeed play a large part, it does not alone determine your wealth. The amount of money your family of origin has, the place you were born, the time you were born, your physical and mental health, and the educational opportunities available to you are just some of the factors that determine your financial situation. Singlehandedly ruining your own finances is possible, but it’s certainly not the only way a person might be classified as “poor” in terms of financial resources.
Myth: People with low incomes do not work.
Reality: During the recent quarantine, we learned that we cannot survive without the people who stock grocery shelves, ring up our purchases at the grocery store, prepare our restaurant meals, and deliver everything to us. Most of these jobs are among the lowest paying in the country, despite demanding so much of those who work them. According to a November 21, 2020 article by Michael Sauter in USA Today, the middle class in New York begins at $30.797 per year. Someone working forty hours per week, for four weeks every month, and all twelve months per year in a $15.00 per hour job in customer service is going to earn $28,800. That means this person will work full time, and still not be able to earn a middle class income.
Myth: Poor people live lives of luxury provided by government programs and charity handouts.
Reality: While there are individuals who know how to “work the system” and use social programs in ways they were not intended to be used, it is both unfair and incorrect to assume that individuals who behave this way are representative of absolutely everyone who has ever used them. There are mid-level corporate employees earning upper middle class incomes who embezzle funds and cheat clients too, but that does not mean everyone you see working in these positions is doing so.
Myth: Those who complain about not having enough to live on are just entitled and narcissistic. They don’t want to work because they think they’re too good for all the available jobs out there.
Reality: There is a lot of narcissistic entitlement in our culture today. It is all about me and what I think and feel about everything, what’s most comfortable and convenient for me, all the time. Perhaps the most striking examples of this sense of entitlement are those who think that just because they own or manage a branch of a major corporation, they’re entitled to other peoples’ labor. They list jobs that would not allow a potential worker to pay their bills, but would also prevent them from working a second job to make ends meet. They then play the victim when people are not lined up around the block begging to work for them. Someone who has two months of living expenses in their savings account and no paying work is going to need to spend those two months treating finding work that will pay their bills as their full time job. If they took a job that required them to work full time, but only brought in a small portion of that amount, they wouldn’t have time to continue searching for a job they could actually afford to keep.
Myth: Poor people could solve all their money problems if they just learned to budget better.
Reality: Budgeting is important, but you can only budget the money you have. When someone’s income runs out before their most basic needs are met, no skill in budeting is going solve that problem. If you have $1,000 to live on every month, you can’t budget your way out of your landlord raising the rent to $1,200.
Myth: Financial freedom is available to everyone. The poor can just sign up to work in the gig economy and solve all their money problems.
Reality: People who work in the gig economy are selling their services. In order to make money, there has to be a market for those services. A poor person certainly could sign up to drive for Uber or Lyft, shop for Instacart, or deliver for DoorDash, if they had the means to own and maintain a car. But they would still have to get customers in order to make money. Gig work is an option for some people, but it is not a sure path out of financial difficulty.
These myths can make excellent material for our art work. Protagonists can struggle against them. Antagonists can perpetuate them. They can serve as the building blocks for an excellent short story, novel, play, or film. But they can only do damage when applied to real people who struggle to get by in the world.
by Jess Szabo originally published on Artist Cafe Utica www.artistcafeutica.com