Katie Klabusich Talks Twitter, ‘Broke’ Vs ‘Poor,’ And Being Trapped As An Unpaid Nanny
On the lived experience of #PovertyIs
I spoke to writer-activist Katie Klabusich! What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
How are you doing today? How’s the West Coast?
Sunrise here is LOVELY — but the coffee shop I’m in kicked off #BanMenTuesday for me. -_- Over it.
How did #BanMenTuesday come about? I see that it’s all over your timeline, and I can’t remember if I’ve seen it before.
#BanMen has been around for ages. I was just in a place when I got to the coffee shop at 5am. (I’m on a two-day writing binge catching up from a rough November.)
So it took one guy in line leering and then an almost immediate random person on Twitter jumping into my thread which was talking about Wagatwe’s entry in our #ItsTotallyMe series about the tumbleweeds in our dating history as we try and figure out why we’ve failed so miserably.
I mentioned it took forever to realize I didn’t want a primary partner because of all the external blame reinforcing the self blame that I’d “failed” — my focus was on my failure and not asking myself what I actually wanted. He wanted to tell me he too didn’t used to want a primary partner! And then BAM! There she was and they’ve lived happily every after for almost 30 years. So I thanked him for silencing. And he got predictably mansplain-y and said I was wielding “cultural supremacy.” Oh.
Then I looked around my TL. Nicole Chung from The Toast was like “ALREADY OVER MEN TODAY” and Alana Massey posted her piece explaining in detail to a series of real men why their emails to women were awful. #BanMenTuesday
Glorious Twitter logic. Which is a good segue to a question about how you feel about Twitter overall. It seems to have functioned as a really important platform for you, as it has for many writers — but do you feel at all complicated about it? I know you have to deal with a lot of maddening backlash via Twitter as well. So, scale of 1 to 10, shitty to glorious, what’s your experience of Twitter?
I’m still like a 9 in Twitter cheerleader. Which sounds weird for someone who’s had their face on an anti-choice poster and deals with people telling me I don’t deserve to eat because I should just “get a job” when I discuss the complicated way that poverty becomes a merry-go-round ride you can’t get off of.
I also have a unique personal history and activism history that really prepared me to deal with Twitter bullshit. There’s a downside to any platform — hell, just going out in public (as my morning in a hat, hoodie, and headsets at a coffee shop while being leered at shows pretty well) opens us up to unpleasant interaction. I joined Twitter pretty late (mid-2011), so I got to watch how people I liked and followed and quickly became friends with handled trolls and blocking, etc. I have always blocked quickly and subscribed to the block bots. So I get way less volume.
The only reason I will engage with a troll — by which I don’t mean an anonymous feed with two followers and an egg, I mean someone behaving like that person as well — is to highlight for people who may not understand or really get what misogyny, racism, bigotry, rape apology, etc. looks like or how it is. If I think I can teach a handful of people about what’s going on in our culture in a way that encourages them to speak up and help make things better, than dealing with that nonsense is part of my culture change work.
Right. Since we’re on the topic of Twitter, can you talk a little bit about the hashtag #PovertyIs, how you go started with it and how it changed things for you?
#PovertyIs happened because I hit a breaking point. I snapped over the SNAP shaming because I was on food assistance at the time. I had also been an unpaid nanny for someone who had been like my sister for about four months, pulling 2–3 back to back all-nighters (why she wasn’t concerned about me caring for her 22 month old and 10 month old I’ll never know) trying to put in enough billable hours with contract work and writing so I could dig out of a 15-year financial hole. The poverty merry-go-round.
I was literally exhausted. Like the physical, medical diagnosis. I was waiting to see if I would collapse.
I just decided to own the word “poverty.” It was accurate, after all.
When the emotional abuse from her got to be too much (she’s one of those people who only feels sort of OK about herself when she’s better than someone in her vicinity), I started ranting on Twitter. I felt like I was going to be stuck there forever, never able to put enough together to get on my feet move out. She had complete control over me. I wasn’t even thinking about a cultural good at the time. I just — without doing it consciously — decided to own the word “poverty.” It was accurate, after all. I worked 80-hours/week for a 70 square foot room and needed food stamps to eat. I was essentially her prisoner.
So I said #PovertyIs being stuck with no options — or something like that. And as I shared more of my story, I started hearing from other people. And then more people. It was a Friday afternoon (PST — so evening EST) during the NBA and NHL finals. It shouldn’t have been Twitter’s busiest cultural discussion hour. But I policed the thread long enough, reporting people and responding to everyone genuinely sharing to keep them engaged with me and each other and not with the people trying to silence them. I woke up the next day and it was still trending — on two continents and doing pretty well in Austrailia.
It’s like being on a desert island and being able to throw out a message in a bottle, only the message went everywhere at once. Did the reaction give you something that you felt like you needed? Or was it the act of simply broadcasting the message that jolted you?
I’d been trying to get a personal essay about being on food assistance picked up somewhere for a couple months. I mean, I’m a professional writer with two degrees who was willing to risk my professionalism and permanently declare I’m not part of the “right pipeline”/media country club by talking about not being able to eat — and no one wanted it. (You and I didn’t know each other. 🙂 ) Places where I knew editors — places that have social justice missions and mantles. It was infuriating and isolating.
To have my hashtag trend on Twitter for days was vindicating. I’m a little teary thinking about it. Sorry, I’m a little raw because I just published the story about how I became an unpaid nanny. 🙂
Don’t apologize! Really. The rawness of the emotion in that story is part of what makes it so resonant. It’s a pretty incredible piece of essay, fierce and yet intellectual at the same time, because, throughout, you step back to connect your experience with larger cultural issues, how people are experiencing food insecurity and related problems all over the country, and how we don’t think about the various ways they are taken advantage of.
I mean, your title isn’t “How I Got Used By Someone I Thought Was My Sister.” It’s “When The Poor Get Taken Advantage Of.” Solidarity is not a word easily used without irony these days, but you’re careful in the piece, I think, to make this whole experience not merely about you, and that’s part of what makes it strong.
And, of course, I’ve noted that the reaction on Twitter has been both very positive and, in some cases, very biting. Can you talk a little about how the piece has been received?
Heh. Yeah. You probably see more of it than I do because I block so much and so quickly. Before I answer your question, I want to say that I appreciate your solidarity without irony use. When I picture my platform it is a “platform of permission.” I’m not telling any stories that aren’t super common — but that’s what gives them power. My power comes from the extreme number of people who have — not just stories like mine, but My Story. My abortion story — the first one I told — is SO BORING. Which isn’t a slam on my story or on me or on my storytelling ability. It’s powerful because it’s SUPER COMMON and completely silenced.
#PovertyIs being invisible. My unplanned pregnancy happened after I lost a third job in as many months and couldn’t afford my birth control pre ACA.
For the most part when I think of the reception to the piece it’s positive. What’s surprised me is not just people who’ve been stuck in a situation where they were abused by a family member or were on a plateau balance public assistance with work hours and impossible logistics or debt. (Filing bankruptcy is costing me $1800 — with a good, reasonable attorney in a friendly state.)
LISTEN: I was hearing people’s unpaid nanny stories. I mean, I have heard and do hear others. But I have heard dozens and dozens of Unpaid Nanny Stories. I mean, WUT? Even I wasn’t ready for that. My exact situation is so fucking common. Today. In 2015. In an era where all we hear is “middle class” “middle class” “middle class” “middle class” — until writers and politicans and pundits are blue in the face with their fingers worn down. But almost half the country’s workers make less than $15/hour. HALF. Which sets people up to land where I was. Lots of people.
We have to do better. I’m 36. I have two degrees and marketable skills. I’m intelligent (and moderately funcitonal thanks to finally having comprehensive health insurance #ThanksObama). And I sleep on a donated air mattress on a donated floor and get up every day (assuming I’ve been to bed) and go to work at a donated desk on a donated chair. I don’t get days off. (I can’t afford them — the free living situation is temporary.)
I think we can do better.
I want more.
I deserve more.
Right — and so do so many other people in your position.
Exactly. And the people who show up with “BUT YOU COULD LIVE IN x/y/z” or “YOU AREN’T AS BAD OFF AS…” You know what? GFY. I don’t live somewhere else. I live here. We have the resources; we simply choose not to. That we have at least 11% of our country living with food insecurity — aka hungry right now or not real sure they’ll eat next week — during GOOD economic times? That should INFURIATE people. One in six Americans. That means YOU know someone.
For the piece I did on the hashtag after it happened for Mic I looked up some polling stats — studies done to see what people thought of welfare “reform” (aka destruction under Clinton). Most people thought it had worked because almost 80% of people don’t think they know a poor person. Chew on that. 15% of our neighbors can’t be sure they’ll eat next week, but most people think they don’t know anyone.
I was like DUDE.
Heh. Yeah. Of course, there’s also the distinction between “broke” and “poor,” right? I know people who have temporarily used SNAP during rough periods but wouldn’t identify as “poor,” possibly I think because they didn’t feel like they had the right to, or because they came from middle-class backgrounds and were reasonably confident they’d end up back there too. Was there a tipping point for you on this question, a moment when you identified as “poor” rather than “broke” — or have you always identified as “poor”?
That’s a great question. Maybe the best question. The use of “broke” when people mean “not going out on Fridays for a while because we want to remodel the kitchen” or “I’m SO BROKE TODAY” because they just bought a new flat screen and upgraded their home security system — the loss of that word as having any real meaning is extremely damaging. It leaves those with temporary situations and not in long-term poverty without language.
I used the word broke for years. It was accurate. From the moment I graduate college I kept working 90+ hours/week. Two or three jobs. Middle management at O’Hare airport for $9/hour 7am to 1am six days a week (with a 30 min trip to our parking lot and a 40 min commute tacked onto each end of that). For a two-year stretch I worked for a dogwalking company Monday-Friday 10am-4pm and cocktailed (waitressed at a late night bar) Thurs-Sunday from 8pm-6am. Without missing a day — except opening day at Wrigley because our boss at the bar took us. Not a sick day. Not a vacation day. Zero days off.
And my car payments were still months behind. That’s how big of a hole I started in coming out of college. But I still had assets, right? I had a car. I had jobs. I was from a modestly middle class family (used to be really possible in small town Midwest). So I said broke.
None of those people was actually broke. I felt like I didn’t have language to explain my situation, so it was never taken seriously.
But then people would chime in “OH ME TOO” which was my first experience with “personal sharing” as silencing. It was like everyone was in an “I’m so broke” verbal competition. None of those people was actually broke. I felt like I didn’t have language to explain my situation, so it was never taken seriously by friends or family. (Those whose discomfort wasn’t so high that they could see what was happening with me.)
It was the unexpected $400/month dental/medical bill in January 2015 that did it. That was ⅓ of my income at the time. Even if I didn’t buy shampoo or Ramen or anything at all, my math was in the red. And I couldn’t care for the kids — even back when it was just a couple 8 hour daytime shifts — and get a second (well, third) job because my psuedo sister’s schedule was different every week. There was no way I could interview and tell a prospective boss what days I was avialable. THIS IS A HUGE PROBLEM with people who work multiple part time jobs. Such a problem that I felt LUCKY to have that dogwalking bartending/cocktailing schedule.
When I realized I had to apply for food assistance, that I literally owned nothing but a few boxes back in Brooklyn and shoes and socks I’d had for 4+ years and pants/bras/jeans given to me by someone I had been tight with for a while in NYC, I was like “I’m fucking poor.”
I mean, what else do you call it? And I considered that I might be co-opting. It took a while to get comfortable because I didn’t want to be that person. But, I mean, what else was I? As I started using it in person on purpose and on air a little bit, I watched and read people’s reactions. I kept hearing and getting undercurrents of “You don’t/she doesn’t look poor.”
Oh? What does poor look like? Ohhhhh. Right. Yeah. I need to talk about it honestly and publicly, I decided. Because my story makes exactly the right people uncomfortable.
I’m curious whether there was any of the same kind of sharing/silencing when you came out as poor, so to speak. Were you embraced by a different community? Or did people back away?
I haven’t heard any of the passive aggressive story share/silencing like with some other things. I heard people — just yesterday I think — say, “Well I’ve grocery shopped on $50/week” to refute ALL THE stats in my EST piece on the nanny situation. I was like, “Oh, is that the only number you’re sharing? HEY, WHERE MY POOR PEOPLE AT? How many line items on your budget every month? I’m at 22.” And people were like, “Yeah, I separate my cleaning supplies from groceries because I can stretch one easier and cleaning/personal toiletries are so expensive.”
That usually shuts up the “LEMME TELL YOU A TEN WORD ANECDOTE to refute your whole life experience” people. They just look ridiculous. It helps that I now have a rather extensive group of engaged poor people who follow me. They’re RIGHT THERE to share their real experiences. That’s the solidarity.
So most negative response are just straight up jerks (“I can’t believe the EST published this trash” or whatever yesterday’s shining star said) or spouting GOP talking points. That shit doesn’t work very well with me because YO this is my LIFE. I don’t have to remember what I said or go double check or see about a number with my accountant. I know it because I’m living it.
The people who have felt relief from self-blame when reading my story, the people who feel relief just seeing someone ANYONE telling their story — even if mine is a FRACTION of theirs — they tell me not just their stories, but they say thank you. Or even better than thank you, I get a lot of “YES” and a RT.
I feel like it’s my place for whatever reason to try and reduce not just stigma, but invisibility. And that provides me with a lot of relief. Twitter has given so much of that to me!
I thought my anxiety and inability to “just get things done” were something inherently wrong with me or a lack of drive/ambition/whatever. It was a friend of a friend I’d met on Twitter who less than a year later when we were out subtly “doctor-ed” me — the way some great docs can do and some moms do without thinking. She is also severe ADHD and wasn’t diagnosed until college when she had LOTS of memorization classes. Same thing had happened to me, but I thought I “burned out” and couldn’t pull it together. When she told me that the feeling of constantly coming apart at the seams wasn’t my fault — that I had an actual, physical TREATABLE condition? Phew.
I know how the people on Elon James White’s #ADDCheckIn thread feel when he and I talk about our disorder. I can almost feel the self-blame wash away through the internet.
So, I’m pretty willing to take the jerkbag-ishness that comes with being out amongst other human beings if it means I can help other people give themselves a break, find help/resources, feel less alone — whatever!
Thank you so much, Katie! I’m so glad we were able to unite you with the Billfold at last.
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