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The humiliation of being broke

It seems that America's favorite thing to do is to judge what people spend their food stamps on.

By MSN Money Partner Oct 3, 2011 10:17AM

This post comes from Sara Gilbert at partner site Get Rich Slowly.


Both my husband and I have spent some periods of unemployment over the past decade, and we have become intimately familiar with financial humiliation. Having had a red tag left on your doorknob notifying you of the impending shutoff of one of your utilities is not just a reminder you might soon lose a vital public service, it's a public shaming, and it's hard not to believe that the water bureau, along with a variety of other crafty creditors, is doing it with intention.


As author Wayne Koestenbaum has written, humiliation is a powerful motivation, and we are more likely to feel the emotion when faced with financial problems than just about any other time in our life post-seventh grade, especially in today's shaky economy. With a shameful quantity of Americans in poverty, with unemployment steadfastly setting records, with home foreclosures continuing to weigh down the housing market, more Americans than ever are experiencing financial humiliation.


On American Public Media's Marketplace program, Koestenbaum spoke about the difference between shame and humiliation:

I think shame is a private feeling. It may feel lacerating and terrible, but nobody necessarily sees it. I would say that humiliation requires a scene. It usually requires some act of cruelty or some catalyst from the outside, from some oppressor or tyrant. Let's say, a boss who fires you. And it requires the spectators who see you lose your job, the bill collectors who come knocking.

The spectacle of financial difficulty
Being in a financial mess is all about the spectacle. If you lose your job, there are the unemployment department employees who must approve your claim. There are the friends on Facebook who will see that you no longer have "employer" information on your profile.


Working, but struggling to pay the bills? You'll get those yellow and pink envelopes in the mailbox that demonstrate just how late you are. You'll get the collection calls. If things are really bad, you'll experience the true humiliation of having a process server visit your house, or a tow truck show up around midnight to repossess your car.


Food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, seem designed to enhance the humiliation and let it trickle through your everyday life. The transformation of the program from funny-money bills to debit cards is a step in the right direction, but there are still spectators at every turn.


There are the employees of the county office who accept and approve your application, the employees at the grocery store, the people behind you in line, who will inevitably review the contents of your grocery bags and pay attention to what sort of car you drive. (If you think I'm wrong, check out the comments on any article on the Internet anywhere about food stamps. It seems that America's favorite thing to do is to judge what people spend their SNAP benefits on.) Post continues after video.

Koestenbaum says our desire to avoid humiliation is connected to both actual unemployment and also the fear of unemployment:

I think even fearing for the security of one's job is humiliating. The feeling of being watched or judged. Certainly, losing a job leads to concrete suffering and hardship, but also to a sense of loss of status and self-esteem, a sense of how you appear in others' eyes. All the markers of identity and dignity are trashed, in a way, when you lose a job.

Humiliation makes you hungry?
I've been thinking a lot about this lately because of recent news that, while record numbers of Americans are getting SNAP benefits, a third of those who are eligible aren't using the program. While many critics say that food stamps are abused, the numbers tell the opposite story, that, in fact, the stigma is too much for many of those living in poverty. Many millions of people would rather struggle to pay for food -- even to go hungry -- than suffer the humiliation of getting and using food stamps.


It's my belief that humiliation works contrary to our best interests during times of crisis, preventing us from reaching out and asking for help either from social services or family and friends.


Past-due bills and humiliation
Take past-due debt. Those who have suffered a financial setback large enough to start racking up late bills, and the phone calls that go along with them, are the best example of a group for whom humiliation works against personal interest. Collection agents are counting on your humiliation to convince you to pay your past-dues immediately. At the worst case, it's a cycle of attempts to avoid shame:

  • You can't afford to pay the whole bill, so you don't pay it, and don't attempt to set up a payment plan with the debtor.
  • A billing department or collections agent begins calling to make payment arrangements. Talking to them would be humiliating, so you avoid the calls.
  • Late fees begin to greatly increase the total amount owed.
  • Letters begin to arrive offering settlement arrangements. You take the one you can afford, even if you're paying far more than the original balance due.
  • Or, you do not address the balance due until the creditor goes to court, garnishing wages or seizing tax returns, creating even morehumiliation and far more expense.

Avoiding humiliation in small doses (attempting to negotiate a payment plan, or in many cases, simply saying no to a purchase or financial commitment) ends up turning into a huge humiliation wallop, up to and including repossession and foreclosure.


Accept humiliation now to avoid it later
My best advice is to learn to say this now: "I can't afford that."


My children ask all the time when we're shopping, "Can we afford that?" or "Do we have enough money for that?" I look around at the other shoppers who are within earshot and I say no even though I'd rather say something more nuanced and prideful ("We can afford that but I'm not comfortable with you buying so many toys."). I've been through enough financial humiliation to know I'd rather own my budget than aspire to someone else's.


Being honest about the financial situation with my kids has helped me put my humiliation into perspective. There are far worse faults than not having enough money to buy the Ben 10 Transformer watch. I'd rather teach them that money is not unlimited than let them think I'm just being a meanie (or that I have unlimited funds, until the process servers arrive, that is). And sometimes it's great to take a call from some obscure-but-well-intentioned nonprofit and say to the closer on the phone, "We have absolutely no money for that."


It can hurt to try, but you should anyway
It's our nature to want to avoid pain now at any cost, even greater pain later. Taking it in small doses is a little like an inoculation: Keep doing it, and eventually, you'll be humiliation-resistant. And hopefully in a far better financial place.


More on Get Rich Slowly and MSN Money:

Oct 3, 2011 12:38PM
yes, we do notice what   people use food stamps for and in some cases it is shameful and disgusting- one in particular habitually buys the most expensive cuts of meat available and then returns them at a different checkout for cash to buy beer and tobacco- another offers to use their card to buy other people's groceries in exchange for cash to spend for massages , beauty salon services and gas-those who abuse the system make it look bad for those who really need it-  
Oct 3, 2011 4:12PM

What can you do now? Not spend every cent you earn. Use everything until it quits instead of upgrading to keep up with every fad and new gaget.


As someone who has been denied unemployment due to a sniveling employer, only you can look out for you. Make saving a habit.

Oct 3, 2011 3:08PM
For 10 years my husband and I paid $1,900.00 a month on our house payment.  We NEVER were late with our payments, nor did we EVER skip a payment.  100% of the payments went to interest, and zero to the principal.  My husband then lost his job, and after notifying the bank (and I don't mind telling you that it was CHASE bank) that we were in financial distress, they did nothing to compromise with us.  Then, with the first skipped house payment, they dogged us every day to pay up, and we talked to one rude associate after another.  To make a long story short, the humiliation is very real.  I love this article, because it reflects the truth.
Oct 4, 2011 6:29AM

Fedupbeingbashed you are using every post to push for your party. Nothing you say has anything to do with the story. Democrats aren't the problem it's the world as a whole. Look around past the end of your nose and realize that the old adage that with more taxes the American dream of becoming a millionair is surely in jeopardy. BS it's like the lottery YOU WON'T WIN. So I believe the wealthy need to start paying their share of taxes as compared to their income. Loopholes are for the wealthy. How are the wealthy using their tax breaks? Creating jobs? BS They are not hurting like you and the majority of Americans. They are buying your homes when you can't afford it then renting it back to you. The republicans are the party stonewalling every program that can help you. They are the party willing to let you suffer so they can point their fingers (like you) at the Dems.

Wake up and throw the bums out.

They already get their lifetime pensions and insurance. They are the ones sucking this country dry and convince you it's the "socialists" fault.


Oct 4, 2011 6:25AM
What a timely article. I have witnessed first hand folks who have fallen on hard times as I am a landlord. What I find disturbing is the lack of truthfulness in some folks about their dilemma. Sadly the "SNAP" program has not kept up with the cost of living. Check out what you qualify for and what the income limits are...scary...very scary!
Oct 4, 2011 1:56PM
What is sad is many who need help have paid into the system as hard working Americans for years. We lose our jobs, use our savings up to pay the mortgage and keep our bills on time thinking "another job is on the way." When the job offers don't come, the money runs out and the so-called friends run, one is left to say"what is going on here?" I am first witness to this. I get denied help as one woman at the JFS told me I was of wrong color and not a foreigner (forget that my grandparents came to this country in 1906). I see many unjust things being done and no one seems to care. I lost my job due to down sizing (been at that job for almost 30 years) and they let me go and closed down the department. With my savings, I was able to keep the house for 5 years and then when the money ran out, that was it. Many would say "get a job" but where? I am 61 yrs old (lost my job when I was 57) and many potential employers look at my resume and tell me "too much experience." 
Yet the flood of new immigrants come in and get whatever they want---from food stamp cards to almost free housing/medical, etc...
What is wrong with the picture folks?
Oct 4, 2011 10:35AM
What's worse, being broke or owing $250K mortgage, a couple of cars, student loans, etc.  Being broke is hundreds of thousands of dollars better than being in debt.
Oct 4, 2011 3:26PM
Helen Sue, it's not possible to get cash for an item returned when it was bought with food stamps.  The return is refunded to the food stamp card.  If a person didn't have or didn't want to show a receipt then I guess they could get a store credit, but usually you can't buy beer and tobacco with those.  Buying someone else groceries for cash is illegal and if the person is caught they will lose their benefits and not be able to reapply for food stamps for I think 2 years.  You can find a phone number on the DHS website for your state to report suspected food stamp fraud.
Oct 4, 2011 5:11PM
He says to set up a plan with the debtor, have you ever tried to talk to someone about doing this. I called as soon as my husband was out of work, before payments were even late, and to no avail.  If you tell them you can afford to send $20 a month, they tell you they need $50.  They are not willing to work with you because the interest just keeps piling on and they make more money. Then there is no choice, you can't afford to pay at all. I tried with everyone and only one company worked with me. That company was paid all their money, it took me 2 years to do it, the others nothing.  It doesn't matter that you paid on time for years and had A-1 credit. 
Oct 3, 2011 2:40PM
So, How's that hope and change working out for all of you? I sure Hope we can change this government and its socialist policies soon so that we can all reinvest in America and get back to work.
Oct 4, 2011 12:47AM
Look everyone. This country wouldn't have these issues with employment if people would quit voting in stupid Democrats as Presidents. Ever since FDR every Democratic President this country has been an Socialistic idiot. And now look who we have in the White House; another Socialistic idiot who's ruining our country! This guy is worse than Jimmy Carter! You people better wake up and smell the coffee and vote Obama and his cronies out next year or you will see 4-5 million white collar jobs leaving this country and a 12-15% unemployment rate nationwide! And if you disagree, just look at where Obama has our country now; net zero job growth, sustained 9.x% unemployment heading to 12-15% by next year, 1.3% GDP growth for 2011 and 1.5% GDP growth for 2012 predictions and from #1 (2008) to #5 (2011) in world ranking in developmental growth and falling! Yea you Democrats sure know what you're doing, don't you?
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