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On Being Broke vs. Being Poor

Illustration for article titled On Being Broke vs. Being Poor

What's the difference between being broke and poor? Nona Willis Aronowitz breaks it down for us in The Nation, using Girls's Hannah and Shameless's Fiona as examples: both women work in the service industry, but the former is indignant while the other is resigned. The most fascinating part of her piece is the difference between how broke workers organize and poor workers refrain from doing so:

Last year, when I reported on a group of young, mostly educated, mostly white kids trying to organize the sandwich chain Jimmy John's in the Twin Cities, I spoke with Macalester College professor Peter Rachleff. He compared the organizers to certain Occupy kids who are "entitled," "aware of their rights," and have a safety net in case they get fired. I met a young woman who was galvanized by the realization that her middle-class aspirations may end up being pipe dreams. "What are the real dreams that we can actually accomplish? Fucking building a union," she told me.

Compare this mentality to that of the working class employees I spoke with at Walmart last month, when reporting for The Nation on the workers who did not join the strikes, many of whom were terrified about retaliation or just happy to be making money at all. These workers are also hanging back from organizing at places like Burger King, Domino's and Target.

...

Rachleff predicts that "as these jobs become less transient, people of all socioeconomic classes may be more vested in making it a better experience." And as the recession's fever pitch recedes into the past, a larger number of young people will come to terms that they'll have these jobs for a while. Eventually, both groups may realize they have nothing to lose by working together.

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[The Nation]

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DISCUSSION

"Poor" is buying $400 cars that you can't afford to fix, so they keep breaking down, so you keep buying $400 cars, and poor is waiting in line for two hours to get a bag with stale bread and two kinds of old, canned vegetables so you can have something to eat. If you're poor, you see an empty can lying around and you take it, because five cans are a quarter, and if you get three quarters you can do a load of laundry. Being poor in the 2000s means that you are scared of speaking up about unfair working conditions, because there are at least ten unemployed people in your vicinity who'll do the work you're doing, and probably for cheaper, too.

"Broke" is being a college student and eating ramen while you wait on your financial aid check, or having $10 in your bank account after you splurge on a night of drinking at the bar. Maybe you're "broke" because your mortgage is a little too high or the interest on your car payments is cutting into your savings budget. "Broke" means that if your job craps out on you, you're pretty sure you have people you can turn to for help, or find another job within a reasonable period of time. If you're "broke" and your job offers you a $0.20 raise, you think "God, they don't even value me as an employee! This is inhumane!" but if you're poor you can figure out in your head exactly how much more you're going to be able to afford with that extra $32 a month.