Can You Housewife Your Way Out of Poverty?
A couple years back, the Trump administration floated the idea of handing out boxes of food instead of SNAP benefits in the form of EBT cards.
I actually don’t think the idea of the Harvest Boxes themselves are terrible. I don’t think they can replace SNAP, but they could be a welcome supplement to it. At any rate, the debate over the issue raised a question that I have long been interested in.
Can you housewife your way out of poverty?
No. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.
Seriously though, I have studied the matter up close and personal as an intermittently poverty-stricken most-of-the-time homemaker for 30 years now and that is my expert opinion. I’ve debated strangers on the Internet and real-life friends on the topic. It’s a surprisingly heated issue.
But the answer is NO. Even though I think the Trump administration was trying to do something admirable with their Harvest Box plan, I’m here to testify that it is impossible to housewife your way into a different social class. People should stahp with the suggestions that poor people should just have gardens or that handing people a bag of beans and a sack of white rice and some seed packets are going to help anyone tug themselves up by their bootstraps. In fact, handing people a bag of beans and a sack of flour and some kohlrabi seeds aren’t going to do anything other than help people starve in the streets.
I’d like to take a moment before I launch into all this to point out how sexist it is, putting the full responsibility for yanking a family out of poverty onto the backs of women. Implying that if only they had a little more Yankee ingenuity or sticktoitiveness or were more Betty-Crocker-y that they’d be able to move their families out of the trailer park. I know, I know, men can cook! And men can garden! So, the statement is not inherently sexist! But real world application time, in the lower middle class/working poor, not only are most of us the type of people who tend to follow traditional gender roles, but our men are freaking exhausted from working all day at physically taxing jobs and thus the role of managing the household generally falls to women, even though we are also freaking exhausted. The cooking and cleaning and the being-frugal-ing and the gardening (if any) that is done, is done by the she-folk and not the he-folk.
People just LOVE to blame a family’s foibles and failings on the female end of the equation, don’t they?
But sexist though it may be, I know quite a lot of people of all political persuasions who really do seem to think the poor are hiding some hidden inborn ability to cook and clean and garden their way into a different tax bracket. Or maybe they’re all cleverly obscuring the fact that they had the skillz once-upon-a-Depression-ago but they’ve withered through laziness and disuse, in need of a swift kick right in the Swiffer.
If you haven’t encountered this phenomenon yourself (or if you engage in it without realizing you were doing it) you may not understand what I’m talking about. So here are some examples I’ve accumulated over the years, shared in the hopes of putting the kibosh on this widespread, bipartisan, blame-the-poor-for-their-living-conditions mindset.
All these things I’ve personally witnessed firsthand, so admittedly a limited sample size. But I believe they speak to a larger set of beliefs – namely, that poor people need to work harder, scrimp and save a little more, and deny themselves every pleasure, and if only they did all that, they’d get out of their income bracket easily. I’m not motivated enough to go hunt them down to post a link, nor do I want to since some of them were personal conversations and I’d rather not call anyone out over them. You can call this a straw man argument if you’d like, but this is my lived experience and just because I don’t want to spend several hours tracking down old and private social media posts to prove it, doesn’t mean these things didn’t happen and aren’t happening regularly.
Example 1 – Cooking. On more than one occasion, both on social media and IRL, I have encountered the concept that the poor should be given large sacks of beans and rice and flour in lieu of EBT cards (the modern incarnation of food stamps). This is quite a popular opinion; so popular, in fact, that on the WIC program, poor families actually ARE given sacks of beans and grains. This is one of the fundamental premises underlying the Harvest Boxes suggested by the Trump administration. Give people actual food that they can cook themselves. Real food is good, wholesome, nutritious. So much better than boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Right?
While this concept sounds good on paper, the problem is that beans and rice, while they last forever without spoiling and are easy to distribute, are among the very hardest things to cook.
I am an expert cook and even I still screw up rice now and then – burned, waterlogged, or crunchy. Homemade bread from flour sounds great in principle but you also need yeast and pans and a big bowl to mix them and for some kinds of breads, butter and sugar and salt and eggs in addition to flour. I bake bread all the time (making some as I write this, as a matter of fact) but it took me years and the generous gift of a Kitchen Aid mixer – a gadget far beyond the budget of most families – before I really got good at it. Beans take quite some time to cook (24 hours plus, in many cases), require extensive amounts of expensive flavoring agents to make them palatable, and are super challenging to prepare. I am still working towards bean mastery after decades of failure – and I had to procure a not-cheap Instant Pot before they started coming out anywhere near as good as canned beans.
Dry goods like flour and rice and beans all require having a decent set of pots/pans to prepare them, which some people simply don’t have, not to mention a working stove and oven. There are many poor people who cook their meals in a microwave or toaster oven!! Some have never cooked or baked in their lives. Many lack the skillset and equipment to be given hard-to-cook foods that are inedible unless prepared just right.
Please understand I’m not saying that this is true of all poor people, simply “give those lazy slobs bags of rice and flour” is not a viable welfare strategy, at least not on its own.
Example 2 – Health. For a while I was in a Facebook group on frugal living. I mostly ignored it as it seemed to be primarily about couponing (which is a rich woman’s game because in order to buy things with coupons, you have to have money to spend in the first place, and most coupons are issued for expensive name brand products no one really needs anyway). But then one day a young woman posted that her husband had lost his job and she didn’t know what to do. Since I’d been in that situation before, I posted some encouraging platitude and then said something along the lines of “potatoes and rice are your new best friend”…because, you know, I’m an Actual Poor Person who has experienced sudden job loss and those foods are cheap filler. Well, some woman with too much time on her hands (after her couponing, no doubt) ripped into me to tell me how my advice was singlehandedly giving America diabeetus and explained that how with only $12 you could make one healthy meal (yams! quinoa! Kale!! salmon!!! Everyone’s fave satisfying meal after a day of hard work) and maybe even have leftovers for the next day’s lunch.
$12. For one meal. If that’s even true (which I doubt, since salmon even where I live in the Pacific Northwest rarely goes below $5 a pound), $12 has many times been a tenth of my entire month’s food budget. The average amount allotted on SNAP is 1.86 per meal per person, meaning that you MUST buy things that stretch farther than one meal – like rice and potatoes. Yet this woman was seriously, self-righteously suggesting that a family spend over a ten-spot on one single solitary supper, with maybe some left over for lunch (this woman has clearly never seen my family eat). And the food value in kale, while it may be “healthy”, is practically nil. You’re paying a LOT for something that won’t fill your belly. Good luck working all day on your feet with a kale salad to sustain you.
It’s insane, and yet that’s the mentality of many who sit around thinking “if only those lardasses didn’t eat carbs America wouldn’t have an obesity problem”.
Example 3 – Frugality. Another day, another social media brouhaha.
This one involves a meme that appears periodically (annoying memes seem to have seasons like yellow jackets or something, showing up once a year to ruin your picnic) that shows expensive, processed foods as compared to cheap, unprocessed foods and how much more food you could buy unprocessed, than processed or fast food. The trouble is, just like the salmon lady, they fudge a LOT on the prices (I have literally never in my adult life paid 98 cents per lb. for chicken breasts and have only purchased 4 for a dollar ears of corn on the very rarest and most joyous of occasions, all of which were in the 1990s).
And they don’t show entire meals, which is ridiculous. Anyone could go into a store and buy whatever random healthy food items happen to be on sale any given week and save a little money, but that doesn’t mean you can make a meal out of them (although that dinner of Bagel Thins and a sack of whole potatoes looks super delectable). I’ve been in the supermarket tons of times, restricting myself to just what’s on sale, and I’ve ended up with various completely unrelated food items that can’t really be combined into anything edible without my already-stocked pantry. You just can’t feasibly shop that way. And poor people simply DO NOT HAVE 700 items already stashed in their cupboards to round out a meal.
Setting my minor quibbles aside, because I do get those graphics are meant to be an illustration of a principle and not a serious suggestion, the meme’s fundamental premise itself is flawed. It’s simply untrue that poor people are squandering their money on KFC and if only they were more responsible and bought punnets of strawberries instead, all would be well. It’s been shown by researchers that the reason why poor people gravitate towards cheap starchy foods – what others might call “junk” – is because they get the most bang for their buck that way – the most calories for the least amount of money. Poor people are doing some complicated mathematical calculations and determining that a diet based around white starchy carbs makes the most financial sense to them.
It’s also been shown that in times of financial distress families drop healthy, expensive foods first. Because, well, DUH. Healthy foods are a massive luxury, many of which (like the aforementioned kale) do not even have much food value in terms of fat, protein, and calories, and if you have the luxury of eating them regularly, that’s great. Bully for you. Your good fortune doesn’t grant you license to sit in judgement of those who don’t have that same luxury. It very well may be they’re doing the best they can do in the circumstances they are in.
Example 4 – Practicality. When it comes to healthy eating, issues of practicality also come into play. Storage space is at a premium for many. If you live in an apartment or trailer, is it practical to buy a great big roly poly sack of potatoes (one meal, maybe two) instead of a box of dry potato flakes (3-5 meals) that fits nicely in your cupboard? Is it practical for a person who may have mice or cockroaches or ants or grain weevils or leaky plumbing to buy dry goods in bulk? A 50 lb. sack of rice or flour or beans that takes up a large amount of space can be easily ruined over time, even if it does save a small amount of money per serving.
If you have a more nomadic lifestyle and have to move every few months or years there are still more practical considerations. Will you be hauling those giant sacks of bulk foods along with you or will you have to leave them behind? Some of you may recall my tale of woe about how I had bought a 50 lb. sack of beans that spilled when I was moving and how five years later, I was still finding beans in surprising places. And I’ve only moved once in 30 years. Imagine having to move every year or even every few months. Economically vulnerable people do absolutely live like this; stability is a luxury that those who have it rarely appreciate.
Buying something you have to throw away more than half of, to maybe save a few pennies per serving, is false economy.
On Twitter recently, pundit Yashar Ali (who I don’t mind publicly dunking on, since he’s slightly famous and this post was the equivalent of toxic waste) decided to punch down at a woman who used canned potatoes to feed her family. The comments section was equally brutal, with the vast majority of people not able to understand how canned potatoes might be an actual thing.
Now, I admit, that dinner doesn’t look particularly yummy to me, but it’s no secret to me why a person might prefer to use canned potatoes over fresh. It’s because they keep a while and are easier to transport than fresh potatoes. Spoilage is a huge factor that people who live near a grocery store, have money to buy food whenever, and/or have a safe, vermin-free place to store their groceries never stop to consider. Fresh foods like potatoes and lettuce and strawberries spoil (strawberries can go in a day sometimes). Some poor people don’t have freezers (I didn’t have a freezer for six years, not even the kind that is on top of a refrigerator, and it DRAMATICALLY affects the types of foods you can eat) and others don’t even have decent refrigerators. And contrary to the Internet’s belief, it’s pretty tough to order stuff on Amazon – if you could even afford it – if you don’t have a stable address or you use a PO Box, which Amazon doesn’t reliably ship to.
Speaking of practicality, is it practical to waste money on kale-based experiments your children (let alone your husband) won’t even eat? It isn’t, and all those people who arrogantly declare (prior to kids) that they’ll NEVER feed their kids macaroni and cheese or let them order chicken nuggets at a restaurant have never known the constant stress of having a picky eater in the 3rd percentile for their age, a child pale from probable anemia and so skinny you can see the bones jutting out of them, who literally WILL NOT EAT anything green.
Never is an awfully long time to swear off kid-friendly food, folks, and the weird thing is, this situation can arise even when you tried really hard to feed your baby cauliflower and avocado. One of my kids hates beans, rice, oatmeal, cheese (won’t even eat pizza or macaroni and cheese), eggs, and all vegetables, despite being fed massive quantities of all those things as an infant, back before my husband lost his job and I still had money to burn shoving pureed veggies down a baby’s gullet. Another hates spaghetti, yogurt, all vegetables, and all meat other than fried chicken. My daughter will eat most vegetables, but refuses to eat potatoes (wut) and cries when she has to eat Cheerios, an item she happily devoured in her infancy.
None of my five children would consume a lentil except under pain of death. And kale? Fuggedaboutit!
At some point children figure out that some foods taste better than others and refuse things they do not like. And no, they don’t always eat when they get hungry enough. My kids have all gone through phases where they were so picky, they looked like Christian Bale from The Machinist. With my first son, I was so happy to find something he would actually eat (breaded fish sticks with ketchup on them) that I found I no longer cared a whit about all those things I swore I would never do – like feed my child breaded fish sticks with ketchup on them.
If none of that applies to you, if you can look at your child happily devouring their plankton loaf, it is not because you are a better or wiser parent, it is because you are lucky and your child happens to like plankton loaf. Don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back.
Oh, and I mustn’t fail to mention the conversation that started off my Non-Doomsday Prepping series. A much younger mom friend, a much richer mom friend, and I got into a discussion about meal planning. Our younger friend really didn’t know how to cook much of anything and asked for meal ideas that weren’t totally processed that she could afford. My richer friend decided that it would be a great time to lecture her about whole grains and vegetables and eating beans, yadda yadda yadda. And the younger gal said “Well, I’d like to, but my husband gets an upset stomach if we eat too much of that stuff.” Then, despite me explaining very patiently that blue collar guys can’t exactly stop to go to the bathroom 10 times a day even if they wanted to (and who does) the rich lady went on and on about how it didn’t matter, it was healthier, and he should just shut up and deal with an irritable tummy rather than putting toxins in his body.
But it does matter. Not feeling well day in and day out is never great even under ideal circumstances, and if you’re working a job where you MUST be physically at your best and/or do not have constant access to a bathroom, it is a dealbreaker.
I don’t care if your old granny ate beans every day of her life and never had stomach issues. I don’t care what people eat in other countries. A LOT of people of the American sort cannot handle massive quantities of vegetables and legumes and brown rice and all the stuff doctors say you “should” eat. I find doctors have a disproportionate amount of job security compared to garbage men like my husband or satellite dish installers like my young friend’s husband. A LOT of people are working jobs where they’ll be fired if they spend half the day in the john.
This is no joke, although I understand the temptation to see humor in it. Having access to a bathroom in the workplace is a very serious concern for working class people, and it means you can’t just hand out sacks of beans and expect people to be able to function and contribute in the workplace eating that way. Not only is it mean, it’s straight up impractical.
Example 5 – Growing your own food is not feasible without land. I got into a discussion with a guy once – nice guy, very well intentioned – who was all about promoting gardening as a way to help people out of poverty. While I think gardening has huge psychic and health benefits for everyone, I quibbled with the idea of gardening as a viable strategy for aiding struggling families. I tried very hard to garden for many years and ran into numerous problems that all poor gardeners have – gardening requires equipment that is expensive. Not to mention good soil and copious amounts of fertilizer to keep good soil good or make bad soil better. Not to mention good weather, which much of the country doesn’t have at least some part of the year, or the ability to start seeds indoors (which also requires soil and fertilizer, not to mention pots).
Above all else, gardening requires that most important resource of all, free time. It’s pretty tough to raise your own food when you work 10 hour days plus an hour commute, and you don’t own a garden hose, so you have to spend 2 hours watering by hand. And for those many poverty-stricken people who don’t have their health (as many don’t), it’s pretty much impossible to get out there with a shovel and spend hours a day in the hot sun weeding.
Even beyond those concerns, the biggest problem I have with gardening for the poor is that most of the food you can grow easily are luxury foods without much food value. Zucchini, for instance, grows well and is prolific, but it just has so little food value. Beets grow well for me, but we just didn’t like them much. Kohlrabi is ok, but most people don’t know what to DO with that. Other crops are plagued with insects (kale for example) and still more like broccoli and celery are really hard to grow. Potatoes and onions may grow, but in most cases you can get more food value for less money from the bags at the grocery store.
In response to my protestations, I was informed that you can grow a peach tree from a pit in only seven years. But that assumes the luxury of stability! Many poverty-stricken people move from home to home frequently. Many do not even own their own homes, living in apartments or trailers or a rental duplex. Gardening implies you put hard work into a plot of land (years of hard work to improve poor soil) and if you rent, you’re putting that work into someone else’s property – if in fact the landlord will even let you dig up a corner of that lawn to toss in some seeds or a peach pit or two, which he probably won’t.
But hey, let’s say that a poor family did plant that lucky pit and eventually got a bumper crop of peaches (without any fertilizer or pesticide – unlikely). Then what? What do you do with it all? A food dehydrator costs money and a huge expenditure of time. Canning takes time, money, skill. Even just freezing peaches is harder than one might think; you have to treat the peaches with store bought lemon juice or citric acid to keep them from browning and you need baggies or containers to store them. And the TIME it takes is considerable. It is hard, hard work for someone who worked all day.
Example 6 – Time, Energy, and Health. The armchair home economists seem to believe food is the biggest part of the equation. They read my protestations and think things like “well we need to GET them the cooking equipment they need!” and “the poor need bathroom accessibility immediately” and “every human being needs access to green spaces!” even though they have no idea how to make those things happen other than pushing it off onto employers or government agencies. Those who believe they’re smart enough to redesign the world see the issues I raise not as stumbling blocks but as problems to be overcome. Eventually. By someone. Not them.
Of course, you’d need to overcome the problems BEFOREHAND, not after the fact while people languish and suffer trying to cook rice on top of their radiator, and planning ahead doesn’t seem to be the way government programs operate. Bureaucrats prefer to wait a few years or decades and then design another failed program to deal with the consequences of their first failed program. But I digress.
There is something that is insurmountable, you see, and that insurmountable thing is the physical limitations of the human body. If you have just worked an 8,10,12 hour day not sitting at a desk in an office but actually lifting heavy things or standing on your feet or hunched over a sawmill or a widget-making-machine, the last thing you want to do is come home and cook or work in a garden for an additional 2-3 hours (in addition to cleaning house, doing laundry, and making sure your child makes a papier-mache volcano for the science fair). You don’t want to waste several hours of your weekend cooking ahead, either. Because you’re TIRED. Mentally, physically, spiritually. You want to rest and relax and do something other than more work. You want to see your children. You want to spend time with friends. You want to sleep. You want to do anything other than more work.
In many, many cases, the reason why a person or a family lives below the poverty line is not because of laziness, but because of issues of physical illness or mental health issues anyway, so it can’t be expected that they’ll be able to move mountains when they can’t even get off the couch. Even for those in good health to start with, being poor makes you more likely to get sick and stay sick, and for mild illnesses to become severe.
Even when you’re healthy, being poor itself drains you; everything is a challenge, a struggle, and it’s freaking depressing. Poverty saps your strength and lowers your morale; as Bob Dylan said, “Everything is broken”. When you’re poor, everything you rest your eyes on is ugly and old and falling apart and borderline unusable. No matter where you go or what you’re doing, you are constantly aware that your clothes are ripped, stained, and out of style, your car is a piece of junk and you don’t have enough gas money, and all you have to eat for lunch is half a packet of saltines. You can’t do a lot of happy little things that other people take for granted like grabbing an espresso now and then, or taking part in Secret Santa gift exchanges, or sending your kids money for pizza party day at school.
Handing a person who is suffering the effects of a workplace accident or chronic damage from years of hard physical labor, a bag of beans and a pan and saying “good luck with that” is not an act of charity. And for someone already struggling with depression, substance abuse, raising a child with special needs, or is just kind of bummed out from fighting the good fight, it’s an act of cruelty. Chronic misery addles your brain and clouds your judgement, and if you doubt that please read this eloquent essay on the subject by Linda Tirado: Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or Poverty Thoughts. Even when you WANT to go above and beyond the call of duty to improve your situation, you have trouble summoning the will.
Example 7 – Because it’s all pointless anyway. At the end of it all, the biggest thing that the wealthy simply do not understand about money is what it REALLY means to not have very much of it. That’s why so many articles about “getting out of debt” or saving money for emergencies starts off with suggestions like “stop getting haircuts at the salon” and “stop going to Starbucks every day” and “stop eating avocado toast”. Poor people already don’t do those things. You can’t cut corners when there are very few corners left to cut.
People love to look at a poor person who has an expensive TV, or drinks pop/beer, or smokes, or plays the lottery now and then and says “if only they hadn’t wasted that money, they’d be so much better off”. But dude, those things are CHEAP. They cost next to nothing. A TV set, for example, can be had for a couple hundred bucks and Netflix is just over $100 a year. I feed my Dr. Pepper habit for what, $300 per annum, maybe? Drinking alcohol daily amounts to a paltry $600 a year. Even smoking an entire pack of cigarettes, a day for a year only costs $2000.
If a poor person were forgo all their simple little pleasures and sit silently staring at 4 blank walls while waiting for their pot of lentils to get done, AND if nothing went wrong (something always goes wrong) they’d have roughly $3000 a year. Whoop-di-freakin-do.
It’s not NOTHING but it’s not a lot. It’s certainly not enough to pull a poor family into another social class, though it may be enough to put you in a higher tax bracket and whisk most of it away again. To put that $3000 amount into perspective, my health insurance costs $9600 with a huge deductible. Our mortgage is $6000 a year. You can’t even buy a decent car with $3000 (ask me how I know) and insurance for that car is $1200 a year, let alone gas, let alone tires, let alone oil changes. $3000 just isn’t that much money. In ten years of savings, ten years of complete self-denial other than the bare necessities, you would have $30,000, which wouldn’t even amount to a year’s salary.
Ten years is a LONG time.
There is little functional difference between 42k a year and 45k. $3000 or $30,000 is just not enough to buy financial security. It isn’t enough to fund a college education, a medical emergency, to start a business, or retirement, even if you forgo every vice you ever had. And many of us never buy cigarettes, don’t drink, don’t even have streaming services – but people still sit in judgment of the chips in our shopping cart, the lottery ticket in our hand, the cell phone in our pocket, the baby in our belly. Technically, we don’t need any of it, but then again you don’t need that granite countertop you put on your credit card, either, now do you?
Life is short. And some of us who don’t have a massive bank account, we just aren’t willing to never taste anything sweet, never experience any moments of happiness and joy, keep our nose to the grindstone to make a profit for someone way higher up the ladder than us. At least not without an icy, refreshing, Dr. Pepper to wash it down with.
Poor people are caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand there is certainly no shortage of people who will decide in advance what poor people can benefit from and deny them charity on that basis (I once had a delightful Twitter argument with a lunatic who said giving poor people free dishes was useless because they didn’t have soap or water or anywhere to store them, ignoring the millions of working poor families who could use a set of dishes). But on the other there is no shortage of people who have a “let them eat cake” attitude towards the poor, who really truly do assume that poor people live in spacious houses that they own, full of cooking implements and a full pantry and room for a garden, and all they really lack is a sack of rice and some gumption.
You cannot housewife your way out of poverty. All the scrimping and saving in the world can’t make something out of nothing. I’d actually like to see something like Harvest Boxes as a supplement to the SNAP Program. But expecting that a bag of rice and a packet of kale seeds will pull anyone up by their bootstraps is nonsense, and this approach will never, ever, ever take the place of extending a helping hand in the form of financial compensation with which the poor can choose the foods that they feel comfortable with, that best meet their needs.
Needs as defined by THEM, not YOU.
The life of a poor person entails being expected to do everything rich people do only you have way fewer resources and you’re carrying many extra burdens. Whenever you fall short, people don’t see the things you lack or the extra weight you’re carrying; they assume you’re starting from the same place that they are and judge you accordingly.
Don’t do that.
It is absolutely possible for domestic skills to help make a poor family’s life better – to provide a diet that is healthier, tastier, and more affordable. But don’t put YOUR unreasonable expectations onto the backs of the poor. They’ve already got enough to carry.