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When poor people have nice things

Many folks get upset or enraged when someone in the checkout line who has a smartphone pulls out a food stamp card to pay for groceries.

By MSN Money Partner Jul 3, 2012 10:23AM

This guest post comes from Andrea Whitmer at So Over Debt.


Image: Man holding out empty pockets. (© Dougal Waters/Photodisc/Getty Images)There's a graphic circulating on some of my friends' Facebook profiles that really gets on my nerves. I told myself I wouldn't write about it, but I saw it again last night and I just can't help myself. The graphic says, "Maybe someday I'll be able to afford an iPhone like the person in front of me at the grocery store. The one paying with FOOD STAMPS!"


Anytime that picture (or something similar) is posted, it gets about 50 "likes" and a long string of comments from indignant people who have personally witnessed a poor person owning something of value. The rage is evident: How dare someone on food stamps have a smartphone! Why should they even be allowed to have a phone at all? Our tax dollars blah blah blah blah.


Here's the thing: We can all think of at least one person who games the system. After working as a therapist for almost seven years, I can think of quite a few. But no one knows the life situation of every single person on the planet, no matter how much they think they do.


A good friend of mine got fired from her job just days after her husband was laid off. Both of them had iPhones on his parents' plan, which cost them $50 a month total. Now, what makes the most sense -- breaking that contract at a cost of hundreds of dollars, or scrounging up the $50 a month in hopes that one or both of them would find another job soon? They didn't have to sign up for assistance; they were both lucky to get jobs before their emergency fund was drained. But if they had, they would have been in the grocery checkout line with iPhones in their pockets. (Post continues below.)

I speak from experience

The only assistance I've ever personally used was Medicaid for my son at two different times during his life. But I will tell you, during both of those times I had cable TV. I had Internet access at home. This last time I had an iPhone (gasp!). I also owned several items that could have been pawned or sold for a decent amount of money.


Was I living it up? No. Not even close. But as someone with two college degrees and tons of ambition, I also never planned to continue collecting that assistance forever. Why should I empty my house of all the things I bought with my own money, only to have to buy them again when the crisis was over? That doesn't make sense.


Now, I could understand it if I had a Lamborghini or two in my garage. But when you're used to a fairly middle-class existence and something happens to you -- no matter what it is -- you assume that your situation will improve at some point. It's not like the poverty police come take all your stuff in the middle of the night. You still own all the things you did before. If you had nice clothes, you'll still have nice clothes. If your cousin bought you an expensive handbag last Christmas, you'll still have that handbag. No one drops off a tattered, dirty wardrobe for you to put on before you leave your house.


I know what you're thinking

I can just hear the comments now. "Well, I know someone who did X and Y," or "I saw a lady buy Z at the mall." I know. I've seen it too. That's not the point.


The point is, some people are in situations that we know nothing about. Some people own nice things from a better time in their lives and choose to keep those things during a setback. And some people make choices after becoming poor that we wouldn't personally make. Talking smack about those people on Facebook isn't doing anything to eradicate poverty, or to change the fact that there is widespread abuse of our current system.

If you get upset when you see a poor person with nice things like smartphones, all I ask is that you consider this:

  • Maybe they just got laid off last month and they already owned the iPhone.
  • Maybe a family member pays the phone bill.
  • Maybe they're picking up groceries for a disabled neighbor with the neighbor's food stamp card.
  • Maybe the phone was a gift and it's jailbroken on a prepaid plan.
  • Maybe you should worry less about what someone else has and more about yourself.

To many people, I could be considered "poor" right now (even though my bills are paid and I'm saving money). And guess what? I own several nice things. Some of you will judge me for that, and there's nothing I can do about it. But I will continue to be disgusted when people criticize another person's choices, especially when they can't possibly know the full set of circumstances.


More on So Over Debt and MSN Money:

Jul 3, 2012 8:13PM

As an ex-police officer that worked a side job at the homeless shelter and after living in India for 4 years, I am totally jaded.  I've seen people trade food stamps for football game tickets while their 70 year old mom babysits their kids, people send their kids into grocery stores to buy food (candy bars and soda) and turn around and take the change to buy beer, I've seen people turn down construction work at $10 an hour (that was in 1995) M-Th and then pummel each other on Fridays to earn beer and crack money for the weekend.  I've seen people cry to the church for clothes for a job interview then 2 blocks over trade it for a needle or beer.  I work for a residential cleaning company and have employees quit right and left (making 12-15$ per hour) because they can make more money off the system than working full time.  It doesn't matter if it is the home buyer bail out, medicare/medicaid or anything else.  Our Government is broken across the board and every aspect of it affects those who live according to the code! Pay their bills on time, work full time, etc etc.  It doesn't matter whether they over spend or not.  When you can write a check on a closed account  for goods/services and a judge throw it out because of a typo, it's wrong.   Plain and simple.  The moral code in this country is severely lacking and those who have a conscious continually pay the price.  After living in India for 4 years and seeing all the human righs violations and the intense poverty, we don't have much poverty here.   So yes, it is our tax dollars paying for all the abuses across the board!

Jul 3, 2012 12:00PM
The U.S. has the wealthiest poor people in the world.  Fraud in government welfare programs is indemic and growing.  And every time we add more welfare programs, make it easier to get on and stay on welfare, we get more welfare recipients.  It is not a surprise to me that a great swath of america is more than happy to just get by in life by feeding at the public trough.  And many of these people lie and cheat to get those benefits by living in the underground economy, hide assets or have friends, relatives or boy/girlfriends who help support them off the public record.  Let's not just end welfare as we know it, let's just end publicly funded welfare altogether.
Jul 3, 2012 12:55PM

While one should consider that a person with nice things who is “poor” might be in one of the situations you note above … In reality most are not !  Most people spend way too much !  Most people are barely prepared for any disaster and live way above their means … If you do not own your car and cannot pay your credit card in FULL each month the reality is YOU ARE OVERSPENDING !!!   

Then when something “unexpected” happens …

as if companies never go out of business, people don’t get sick, accidents don’t happen, people never get laid off etc…

....   Everyone has a hand out for government assistance !!!

GET REAL - Stop making excuses - Stop Overspending !!!

Jul 3, 2012 4:14PM
I have a friend who worked for DSHS doing random "spot checks" on recipients. She left her job after twenty years, quite embittered, told me she never saw one person, NOT ONE, in all checks who was NOT cheating the system in at least one way, some times in many.  I try hard not to be judgemental , espceially when I know some people who are in dire straits soley as a result of poor choices or overindulgence, but I do get tired of shelling out for people who have multiple kids they can't or won't care for, are apparently too good for any job that doesn't pay maximum wage for minimum hours, and never chip in for health care, day care or food, why? Because they have us to pay it for them! Also, thumbs down to the boys and men of this world who have become thieves of girls purity instead of defenders of it. Oh wait,thats another can of worms!   Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
Jul 4, 2012 10:42AM
For the author: why should you sell things you bought with your own money??? why should someone else (the people) be responsible for you loosing your job and you still wanting to keep your cable, internet and expensive cell plans?? I can't believe you think that this was ok.  Many people have paying jobs who can't afford those luxuries yet you feel you deserve those things because your educated. I'm all for the "system" helping those that need it short term but to brag that you still indulge in these items when others go without because you feel entitled.  Your one of those people all of us on FB cringe at for your selfishness and downright belief that your entitled.
Jul 5, 2012 11:05AM

In 1993, when I was going through divorce and cleaned houses for a living making about $600 a week before taxes, I suppose I could have received benefits from the government. But I was too proud to accept that help. My two teen children and I got through it. We watched our pennies quite literally, we did not go shopping except for truly needed items. I was able to get into nursing

school after living this way for 2 years. I did receive a Pell grant for nursing school $5000, but paid for my books and other fees myself. Life was tough, I was always exhausted because of work and studying. Oh and I forgot, I recieved a child support payment of $140.00 a month. People don't realize that they can make it through hard times. Yes it is hard, but not impossible. Now I am an RN, my children are grown and doing well. My son is in the military and my daughter is married with 2 children. No one did drugs or smoked pot. I am grateful for how things turned out. But I know I worked hard to get where we are today. It is possible to get through tough just have to work hard and think smart about how you spend your time and money. 

Jul 5, 2012 7:54AM
I am also a teacher and have witnessed many families who know how to play the system.  Families even network to inform each other on what to do to get free money from the government.  These families seem to have no intentions to look for work.  Staying home and having more babies with one or more "fathers" is common.  I also had a parent say to me that she was considering doing foster care because she found out how much money she could make.  Parents have even come to me with documents from their doctors wanting me to help them get their child a "disability" so they could collect more money.   Disabilities is another area where people have learned how to say and do the "right things" at the doctor's office to get a disability the rest of us can pay for while they are out golfing, gardening and enjoying life.  Don't get me wrong....I am not against people getting help....I am against those who use the system or intentionally lie to get money that should be going to those who truly need it.
Jul 3, 2012 9:17PM

There are a lot of "maybes" listed in this article, and they are no doubt sometimes the case. However, if  you've ever volunteered in a food bank you know that the majority of the people who come in are smoking, reek of cigarettes and/or beer, and are either texting or talking the entire time. Many even complain about what you give them. It was an eye-opener for me, let me tell you. It also called into serious question the need to give to these people. I was so disgusted after a few months I knew it would be better if I left before I said something I shouldn't. I was very disillusioned. I wanted to help people but came to the conclusion that as long as you help, they have no incentive to help themselves.


This is not to say there were no serious and sincere real needs, but they were few and far between.

Jul 4, 2012 2:11PM
Entitlements are government's way of creating dependents that double as constituents.  Why make the hard decisions like cutting back on cable and cell phones when you can just sign up for government assistance.  Just like the signs at national parks indicate, when you feed the animals, they become lazy and dependent and can no longer fend for themselves.
If you have to go on food stamps immediately following a job loss, it sounds like you were stretching to buy that iPhone in the first place.  I realize this article is encouraging human compassion for folks in need (and that's certainly noble), but it actually underscores the problem with comprehensive social welfare:  it's presence serves as a disincentive to save money and/or provide for one's self, and thereby helps contribute to the very problem it's attempting to solve.

Jul 4, 2012 11:04AM
Yes I have posted comments about this.  I happen to live in a part of the country where "welfare families" are now in the 3rd and 4th generations.  What is messed up to me is when people are helped...helped...and helped and never get any better off.  Yet still flaunt "nice" things.  Not jealous at all, just realize I don't have an iphone now and have decent credit...guess it'd be nice if my poor aging Mom and Pops had to pay for one for me?  I don't think so...
Jul 5, 2012 3:23AM

A human arguement and reasonable enough on the surface...dare I suggest putting off or forgoing a few of the luxury purchases when times are good in favor of saving or investing for a rainy day?  This is the problem with America today...why should I have to sacrifice when someone else will sacrfice on my behalf?

Jul 8, 2012 11:56AM
C'mon guys, judge me; 

Until October, 2008, I was working a job in a PR firm making $50k a year. During that time I bought an IPhone and new car and some other luxury items because i could AFFORD it. And then, I got laid off in 2008 abruptly and unexpectedly. 

Then was unemployed for a year, went through my savings, all $20,000 of it (How many of you whiners whining over those on public assistance have $20,000 in savings?) and then had to apply for some government assistance because I have no family. My parents both died when I was a kid and my extended family, couldn't care less for me. They don't make it easy, let me tell you, and I did have to get rid of some of my stuff to get on it, and no I couldn't put any of it toward IPhones or nice clothes or what not. Also, you're all mad that all people on food stamps can buy is crap food? So are we. You know why that is? Cause its cheap. 

This isn't about pride, this is about what I earned. I earned my luxury items by working sometimes 7 days a week until I was employed and now society is asking me to give all that up because my boss decided to cut his budgets by letting me go?. I also earned the right to get some assistance from the government while I look for a new job by paying my taxes for all those years too.

Are people abusing the system? Sure, but that's why we have people who find them and catch them and many do. But I'm not willing to apeshit over 

When I needed the help, my government was there for me, who wasn't there for me for my fellow so-called Christian Americans who in a very unchristian manner decided it was better to judge me. And I know I'm going to get responses like "Oh you probably deserved to get fired" or whatever. I don't care what you think. Some of you are beyond hopelessly bitter about whatever world you were forced to live in and I can't help you with that, but God will judge you in the end. 
Jul 5, 2012 4:09PM
People who fall on hard times and need a little help to get back on their feet are not the problem.  It's the people who feel they are entitled to things, have an x number of kids that they can't afford, and have no intentions of working hard for themselves that really get under my skin.  It's really unfair that my husband and I both work for the things we have and pay for our healthcare while some of my friends get to stay home with their kids and get a ton of gov. benefits.  Ie. some choose not to get married just so they can claim to be single moms.   
Jul 3, 2012 10:04PM
I see a lot of people at my local grocery store using these government checks.  I am frustrated when the person using those food stamps/government check has fancily manicured nails and freshly dyed and styled hair.  That bothers me.  I do not pay for manicures due to cost, and I buy generic foods and things on the discount rack, and I buy healthy, cheap food (sacks of oranges, etc)  On a teacher's salary, it is all I can afford.   Yet I often see very expensive, unhealthy items in the baskets of these people.  Last time I observed a lady's government check going to pay for expensive baby formula, then, she paid separately in CASH for other items.  I was puzzled. 
Jul 5, 2012 8:20AM
When I am in line at the grocery store buying items on sale and a lot of chicken and ground just ticks me off that the welfare woman in front of me with a load of kids is buying shrimp, lobster and steaks with her food stamps. I go out and get into my ten year old Bonneville and she gets into her brand new Cadillac!  What's wrong with this picture??? I have a old phone and she has a brand new android and I can assure you she isn't using it to look for a job!  I know this filthy slob has never worked a day in her life. I guess they learn to play the system and we stupid working fools are paying for it!  Time to start drug testing all of these welfare recipients....if you are using drugs you get completely cut off from everything.  Working people get drug tested all the time.
Jul 4, 2012 10:09AM

Let me tell you all a story I saw with my own two eyes. While waiting in line to pay for my groceries a young girl could not have been any older than 15 turned to her mother and told her she was pregnant. The mother told her and I quote "Good girl now we will get more money from welfare" Dont any of you even try to tell me that we owe anything to any one out there. What would all of them do if there wasn't welfare. Maybe all of our taxes wouldn't be as high as they are now and business would have more money to create more jobs. Seems to me they would take that $8 or $9 an hour job if there were no more handouts. And one more thing to rant about anyone on welfare doesn't have to eat steak and seafood  with there food stamps maybe the Government should run Its own grocery store for only welfare  that way they eat cheaper and healthier. Hamburg 'chicken and hotdogs will fill the belly just fine.

Jul 4, 2012 9:10PM
As a teacher, I have seen parents drive a much nicer car than mine, while their kids receive free or reduced lunches and free breakfast.  I have seen some of these same families take cruises while collecting money free many services.  This is frustrating.  What are these families going to do when the money run outs.   Those of us paying our bills and these people bills as well are going to run out of money at some point.  With this economy it seems less and less of us are supporting more and more of them!
Jul 4, 2012 8:09PM
Yeah it's irritating when my/our taxes are paying for others especially when they can procure other items. I verified via social services and Hud how the programs work in Mississippi. A single mom with 3 kids can get around $900/mn in food stamps, $850/mn voucher for rent, FREE electricity, FREE insurance, FREE cell phone, and if has 1 child under 5 DOES NOT HAVE TO WORK. If they go to school they MUST work. They can get all this AND make up to $2000/mn at a job. All together this example would be around $5,000/mn +/- tax free. I had one section 8 Hud tenant that was in school, made a 4.0 in nursing, graduated making around $3k/mn but quit two weeks later bc she "didn't like the hours" beyond the fact that she'd have a net loss of $2k/mn. It was the last time I ever worked with a section 8 tenant.
Jul 5, 2012 3:11AM
people who lose their jobs should start looking for any jobs, including p/t and temps, that's what happened to me.  Nothing's "beneath" you when you can't pay your bills.  You move to smaller apartment, use antenna instead of cable, and definitely trade in your new SUV for an used fuel-efficient vehicle.  You sell/pawn whatever you own, and you buy them again when you get a job.  You will have to sell them when move into a homeless shelter anyways.  I think pride and esteem should be the first to let go when don't have a source of income.  People need to know they have to make all kinds of sacrifices and only deserved to be helped after they've done so.
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