Five Incidents of Tuning in to Money
by Sam Blackwell
I’m an AmeriCorps member, serving as a quasi-social worker helping low-income families with their financial difficulties. I’m explaining to my client in painfully incompetent Spanish that there’s nothing she can do legally, that the landlord’s letter she handed me says she needs to move herself and her family out of their apartment by tomorrow, that the county will probably offer her shelter since her kids have social security numbers, even though she doesn’t. She asks if ICE will get involved if she goes to the county. I say no, but I can tell she doesn’t believe me.
Tears well up in her eyes, but she doesn’t cry. This angers me. I want her to give into those feelings of despair and hopelessness. I want her to cry. I want her to yell at me and piss me off so that I don’t have to acknowledge the massive failings of the system that gives me so much privilege. I want her to do nothing but whine so that I can blame her for not trying hard enough.
She doesn’t cry. Instead, she thanks me and leaves. I will never see her again.
The man hands me $600. He’d promised me more, but, despite my very honest craigslist ad, he’s a little taken aback by the severe angle of the broken wheel and the extent to which the rear axle is bent.
“You did this by backing into a pole?” he asks.
I had done it by backing into a pole, yes. I had caused $2,600 in damage in five seconds of reckless driving. I’d totaled the car — the car my parents gave me so that I could visit them with less hassle, so I could babysit my sister’s kids more often, so that I could get to job interviews or do any after-work internship, the car with the brand new ignition switch that my sister had paid for, the car with brand new tires for which I was still $500 in debt. I’d been too cool to check behind me as I peeled out of the parking space, hitting the pole with a nauseating crunch followed by the even more nauseating sound of grinding gears and creaking metal as I slowly drove home.
As the man drives off, I run my fingers over the grainy hundred dollar bills. Later, I will use the money to buy an iPad.
I’m standing in front of a class of low-income mothers. They are required to be there by the county in order to continue receiving their welfare benefits.
I’m trying to explain to them the benefits of having a credit card and using it wisely. I outline the steps for good credit card use: using only 30 percent of your credit limit, paying the balance every month to avoid interest, applying only for a credit card you know you can get. It’s simple, I say, and if you do it right, it will really help you in the long run.
A woman raises her hand. “Why would I want to buy something with money I don’t have?” she asks, slouching in her chair, crossing her arms.
I explain to her that using a credit card wisely can help establish good credit.
“What’s the point of good credit?”
I fall back on the end goal of these financial workshops, the outcome my supervisors are pushing so that our reports look good to our funders, a goal which I have yet to see any of my clients realize.
Well, I say, in case you want to buy a house someday.
The woman rolls her eyes.
I’m at happy hour with a couple of friends. We’re discussing what we’d do if we won the lottery. I confess that I’d keep enough to live comfortably for the rest of my life and give the rest to various non-profits. My friends scoff at my idealism and suggest instead that I invest most of it and then give the money I make from the market.
I tell them I wouldn’t ever want to do that. I tell them that banks are what’s wrong with the world, that playing the market is basically validating a system where a bunch of privileged white dudes make money out of nothing but their own privilege, that an “investment” economy means siphoning wealth from people who actually work for a living and redistributing it amongst the mega-rich. I tell them that I don’t understand why anyone would ever want to buy a stock, because what is a stock, even?
A friend calmly points out that a stock is ownership of part of company, but I’m feeling confrontational. I tell him that this “ownership” is imaginary, that it doesn’t mean I have any say in the governance of the company, that I’m basically just using money to buy more money. “What does a stock actually get me?” I ask.
He looks at me with trepidation and I know I’ve been too forceful. You get more money to give away, he says.
Our food arrives. I feel naive.
It’s Thanksgiving, and Levi’s is having an online sale.
I haven’t purchased a pair of jeans in two years. The one pair I own have faded from an unwashed cobalt to a grainy cerulean. The shape of my cell phone can be seen in the wash even when the phone isn’t in my pocket.
I look at the pair of dark blue 508s with a mix of desire and fear. I imagine myself in them, revelling in the thought of pants that actually extend to my ankle. A pair of jeans I could actually wear to work! I think. But even at 40% off, they’re more than I’ve spent on any article of clothing since I started my AmeriCorps term.
I access my bank account. This is usually a bracing reality check, a reminder of my permanent brokeness. I sigh in exasperated expectation of the bad news.
My first direct deposit from my new job has gone through. I am unexpectedly rich.
The jeans arrive a week later. They fit perfectly.