My grandmother grew up during the great depression. She still hoards food in nooks and crannies throughout the house and when let loose on a piece of chicken will eat every last scrap of digestible item on the bone. She habitually makes soup with boiled beef bones to get every last ounce of nutrition.
My father grew up just post-depression in a very rural area. While he never missed a meal, many meals consisted of only a few slices of bread as a filler and maybe some soup and not much else. I've never seen him eat a meal without eating some bread with it, he said it makes him feel uncomfortable.
My family was pretty low-end middle class growing up, and a couple of unlucky business decisions set us homeless for the better part of a year, with my entire family of 4 living in a single room subsidized motel room (rent 5 days, get the weekends for free) followed by two years of living out of two rented rooms in somebody's basement. We also never missed a meal, but I can tell you that I, to this day, cannot eat a cup of noodles meal without thinking about drug addicts banging at our motel room door thinking we were the room down the hall. We did better after that, and then later in life, as an adult, I found myself in not-quite-so-bad-but-not-great circumstances. A time when I used to decide if I could buy lunch at McDonald's or Taco Bell by counting how many hours extra I would have to work to pay for McDonald's.
Some of the things Scalzi mentions, would have been luxuries at certain moments in my life...like having toys. I've spent time as a child with no toys at all.
People who have never been poor, have absolutely no understanding, cannot fathom, why people are poor and why they stay poor. Being poor is not about having a lack of money, it's about having a lack of wealth. It's a way of life. A person who has never been poor cannot understand why you can't "just go to night school" to improve your lot in life because they don't understand that between two 40 hour a week jobs, and 2 or 3 hours a day of walking between jobs, home, the day-old-baked goods store and the salvation army, you have maybe 4 or 5 hours that night for sleep...every night. And what intense sleep deprivation coupled with intense, dangerous and stressful jobs can do to a person after decades. We worry about soldiers deployed for 18 months, imagine that type of life for 18 years solid.
"Being poor is picking the 10 cent ramen instead of the 12 cent ramen because that’s two extra packages for every dollar." This is the type of calculation one has to make all day every day when one is poor. It's very easy to be critical when you see a poor person buy a pack of cigs or a 6-pack of beer instead of a head of lettuce or that month's electricity bill. But I dare anybody to live that kind of life and not be so stressed and so damaged from the constancy of it, that you seek any kind of escape possible and that desire for escape infects all of your decisions. When your eating decisions are down to decisions about pennies, there's really not much worse things can get. Having the lights turned off because you didn't pay the bill does not really make things all that much worse in your day to day.
"Being poor is four years of night classes for an Associates of Art degree." The prime question asked by those who have never been poor, and are unable to empathize with those who are, is this..."why don't you just go to school and make your lot in life better?" There are lots of reasons to be poor in the first place. If you are lucky like I was, it's not because you have a mental disease or a severe learning disability, or are crippled or in some other way handicapped or not raised in a generational environment of poverty where you honestly don't understand that going to class can translate into a house in the suburbs because you have absolutely no life experience for you to understand that. Just in the same way some people don't understand what it's like to be poor, poor people can't understand what life is like to be not poor.
I was able to spend the 6 years in night school to get my 2 year A.S., which brought me up a step in life so that I could spend another 3 years getting the last two years of my B.S. which brought up a step in life so I could spend another 4 years getting my M.S. But at each step, if I hadn't had a person at that time to help me up that step, and give me an opportunity, I'd still be comparing Ramen prices, or figuring out how many meals a 10-pack of tacos from Taco Bell would last. And if I hadn't had the emotional support from good friends, or people who believed in me...well, 10 years is a terribly long time to keep motivated to change your lot in life while also doing all the other things people do in their day-to-day, like keeping down full-time jobs, career advancement, marriage, etc. Basically, being poor is a full-time job on top of your other full-time jobs. But I don't think that every poor peer I knew while I was poor could do the same. I got lucky and had great opportunity, and I worked hard to seize those opportunities when they came along. If nobody ever opens the door for you, you can't ever go through it and nobody is strong enough to carve their path in life to success all on their own.
My friend, who was born with the after-effects of an alcoholic and drug addicted mother, was unable to keep passing grades in his 6 year quest for a 2 year associate's degree and has never held a salaried position. That means he's never had health insurance, which means he's lost 3 jobs because he spent 14 hours in an ER getting basic medical care. It means he's had cars repossessed because somebody hit him and he had no auto-insurance and couldn't pay the repair bill out of pocket. It means that sometimes, to escape the shitty life he has to live every day, he sometimes buys a used book to escape into instead of a head of lettuce. It also means that sometimes, at the beginning of the month, he's just paid his rent, and he has $12 left in his bank account to stretch out till his next paycheck.
And then, after you've been poor for a long time, it shows. There's an aura about a poor person that no amount of hair product and tailored suits can shake. It sits on them in how they walk, how they talk, how they sit, how their skin hangs, what their build looks like, how the hold themselves, where they look in a room, how they behave at a meal. Because of this, no matter how hard they've worked to "make it", they'll always have that stigma attached to them, even by people that never knew they were poor. They'll present like a poor person so they'll interview worse, they'll get promoted less frequently, they'll get scored lower on yearly reviews.
Going from poor to not poor, is not about climbing a ladder. It's about being on the front of a seige engine attacking a fortress while arrows and bullets and hot oil rains down on you.
> People who have never been poor, have absolutely no understanding, cannot fathom, why people are poor and why they stay poor.
It's amazing to me how many of the comments on this thread remind me of how I would describe depression.
I'm not poor and never have been. But I have felt hopeless despair that I don't think people can understand unless they've experienced it. It is an emotional response that is radically disproportionate to the actual circumstances that triggered it.
I won't argue that depression has any of the long-term effects you describe though.
Depression is often a result of feeling trapped by life's circumstances. Being poor can often feel like one is trapped. It's not a stretch to say that many poor people are also highly depressed people.
I agree though, it's like describing what color is to a person blind from birth. In some cases (as are represented on this thread) it's like describing it to a blind person who thinks they already know how all the senses work, and a person can just get over the "seeing thing" if they just sniff hard enough.