on poverty

 

 

“In civilised society, personal merit will not serve you so much as money will. Sir, you may make the experiment. Go into the street, and give one man a lecture on morality, and another a shilling, and see which will respect you most. … When I was running about this town a very poor fellow, I was a great arguer for the advantages of poverty; but I was, at the same time, very sorry to be poor. Sir, all the arguments which are brought to represent poverty as no evil, shew it to be evidently a great evil.”

— Samuel Johnson (quoted in James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.; 20 July 1763)

 

 

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Poverty is not glamorous, as Samuel Johnson said. When I first came to New York, I lived, on a meager salary, from paycheck to paycheck. I had just enough money to pay my bills, and not much for luxuries such as entertainment or dining out. I used to worry about having enough money in the bank at the end of the month to pay the rent. My bank account was a few hundred dollars.

Worse than impoverishment, it seems, are the constant stress and worry that come with it.

I am not rich and have never been. But, I am more established now, financially as well as otherwise. I am no longer living at the margin. This means that I don’t have to worry from day to day about having enough money for expenses. I know that I can pay my bills, and if, say, I indulge myself with some non-essential purchase, I may ask myself whether I should have made the purchase, but I know that I will be able to pay the credit card bill when the time comes.

I wish to obtain an out of print book. There is a copy available for sale online for a hundred dollars. That’s a lot, but I have to have it. I’ll pay! A must-see Haydn oratorio is being performed at Carnegie Hall? I’m going! Whatever a ticket costs, whether it’s fifty or a hundred dollars.

 

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An observation I would make based upon experience is that: If you have enough and don’t have to worry about money, irrespective of whether you would be considered rich, it behooves one to pay a little more for quality. It makes sense.

A couple of examples.

For a while, I was getting haircuts from a local barber at a cost of about seventeen dollars including a generous tip. I realized over time that he was not giving me good haircuts. He would rush through the haircut and would never fuss over me or provide any extras that some barbers provide as part of a normal haircut. I never looked good. It occurred to me recently that I should find a better barber. I found a barber shop in in Manhattan that I have been going to for the past few months. The cost for a haircut there is about thirteen dollars more per haircut with a generous tip. I look a hundred percent better.

I probably get a haircut about nine or ten times a year. So, the extra cost works out to about 120 or 130 dollars more per year. For me, the difference is negligible; it’s well worth it.

Similarly, my wife and I shop at a local Italian grocery where one can purchase quality foods. We could obtain such items cheaper at a supermarket. But the Italian store provides quality and is a pleasure to shop at. (It is quite popular.) A few dollars more does not concern us.

And, when it comes to dining out — including the occasional meal with my wife, or eating in Manhattan restaurants when I am in the City during a weekday — I don’t think that much about price. I try to choose the best place. This does not mean very high-priced eating establishments, which I do not patronize, since to me, to do so would make no sense — I am not a gourmet. What I am thinking of is when there is a choice between a cheap place with inferior food and a slightly better place. Without hesitation, I will choose the better place if I can find one.

 

 

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A final thought. This, I think, is crucial to keep in mind.

If one is poor, one doesn’t have the luxury of opting for better service. One should always keep this in mind so that things are kept in perspective and one doesn’t assume a snobbish “let them eat cake” stance; or look down on the poor for their poor choices in, say, eating establishments or dress. If you are making minimum wage and can barely afford the rent, if you are a single parent who can barely support your children, keeping one step ahead of impoverishment is a constant preoccupation. So, when you eat out, which you may be doing because your job doesn’t give you time to cook, you have to choose the cheapest place, and thank God there are McDonalds’s and such places where one can fill one’s stomach. Luxuries and entertainments permitted are few. If your kids need a haircut, a low-cost barber is the only choice. One can’t consider paying ten dollars or so more for a better haircut, as I now do. One is always looking for bargains.

 

 

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I think back to the stress of my early days as a wage earner living in the City. To have enough money for a date, a restaurant meal, a concert, a sports event, or whatever was often problematic. I was not totally deprived, but each expense had to be weighed, came with the nagging thought that it might deplete my pocket money and leave me short at bill paying time.

I am glad those days are past for me. That I can purchase books ad libitum and pay a bit more for good service. My life is less stressful now. Poverty isn’t glamorous, as Johnson observed so acutely.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   April 2018

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