Does the World Need Poor People?

Before I get too far into this article, I want to be clear about something. By “poor,” I’m not talking about people who are starving in remote corners of the world (or just around the corner.) I mean the people who exist at the very bottom of our capitalist society. People who earn minimum wage or those who work in the American factories of Asia. The people who earn enough to pay the bills and put food on the table. People who are getting by, but just barely.

Does the world need these people?

I wonder if our lives might actually depend upon the poor remaining poor. It seems to me that poor people are paying the price for (or are absorbing the costs of) our consumer lifestyles and our demand for cheap merchandise. To keep the cost of the products we buy as low as possible, the wages of the people producing them must be equally low, whether it’s an iPad or a Big Mac.

We need poor people to subsidize our lifestyles.

Without them, we wouldn’t be able to afford to have the things we have. We’re able to own the things we do because of cheap labor (and poor people.) If it wasn’t for minimum wage workers, our sandwiches at lunch would cost much more than they do now. Without Asian factory workers earning a couple of dollars a day assembling iPads, most of us wouldn’t be able to afford to own one.

A lot has been made of America’s middle class being the “backbone” of America, but it’s the poor that allow the middle class to exist. Without their sacrifices, our lives wouldn’t be as comfortable as they are. It’s their toil that’s built our lifestyles.

We need poor people.

If you object to corporations exploiting cheap labor, consider that these jobs are providing an income to people who need it…poor people need work too. If you’re opposed to foreign workers earning a couple of dollars a day, consider that, while applying American standards to foreign situations might seem like a noble way of approaching the issue, living standards vary dramatically around the globe and such comparisons may not be valid.

“The wages these jobs provide are not enough to get workers into the middle class. But they are enough to provide for food, shelter and transportation. And they often allow people to pay for schooling for themselves and family members.” ~ Source

If you’re not comfortable supporting these things, you have options.

Become a conscious consumer and spend your money in a way that represents your values.

As a consumer, you have the power to affect change by choosing how and where your money is spent. Ask yourself how your lifestyle might demand cheap labor, outsourced jobs, and Asian sweat shops. When making purchases, consider fair trade products, items that are sustainably and locally sourced, and/or buy secondhand. Check out the FreeCycle Network.

“Each time we buy a product or a service, we place a vote of confidence in that producer or service provider – every source of raw material, every practice of environmental standards, every form of employee relations and every form of communication with the public. Everything that company or group does is something we support. Everything that company or service provider does and believes, we’ve said yes, go ahead and keep doing it.” ~ Source

Or opt out of consumerism entirely.

The money you spend on shit you don’t need doesn’t grow on trees. It has to be earned. The more you spend, the more money you need, and the more you have to work. Alternatively, the less you spend, the less money you need, and the less you have to work. The less you have to work, the more time you have to do things that are meaningful, like spending time with your family.

“To live fully, we must learn to use things and love people, and not love things and use people.”

The bottom line is that your choices have consequences. And things aren’t always as simple as they seem. It’s your responsibility as a consumer to educate yourself about the purchases you make and make decisions you’re comfortable with. If you’re okay with owning products that came from a factory where workers have committed suicide due to poor working conditions, that’s a choice you have to make (and live with.) It’s more than a product you’re buying…your purchase is a statement of your support for the entire process involved in getting that product into your hands (and what happens with it after you’re done.)

Educate yourself.

Another Plastic Christmas

Before we know it, many of us will be sitting around the Christmas tree opening countless gifts from friends and family.  If we’re lucky, someone will have read our wish list and whatever it is that we’ve lusted over for the past couple of months will be among the pile of presents.  We’ll tear through the carefully wrapped paper in anticipation and squeal with glee when we finally find that piece of plastic we’ve been waiting for.  And when the chaos of opening presents has finally subsided, the floor littered with the dead remains of wrapping paper, we’ll feel like we’ve just had a great orgasm; both exhausted and satisfied.

Is the meaning of Christmas to just buy a bunch of shit for each other?

Over the years I’ve become increasingly frustrated with the holiday season.  Mindless consumption.  Thoughtless gifts.  Excessive spending.  A complete lack of gratitude.  Have you ever asked yourself why you’re even buying gifts in first place?  Is it out of obligation?  Social pressure?  A desire to conform?  A need to create an image?  Do you feel that Christmas wouldn’t be the same without gifts under the tree?

Can you even remember what gifts you received last year for Christmas?  And from whom you got them?

This year I’d like to try something different.  Instead of the usual orgy of presents under the tree, I’d like to convince everyone within my circle of influence (that means you!) to celebrate the holiday season in an unorthodox way, without presents for each other.  My hope for this Christmas is that I can dismantle the “circle of giving” and instead convince my family to pool our money together to buy a cow for a family in Africa.

Tonight was the first time word of my plan reached ears other than our own as Erin shared the idea with her family.  I was disappointed to hear that the suggestion of buying a cow was somehow so absurd that the person on the other end of the phone couldn’t stop laughing and had to pass the phone on to someone else.

I have to be honest and say that I’m not sure how buying a cow for a family in need is anymore ridiculous than buying scented candles or any other thoughtless gift for someone who probably isn’t going to appreciate it anyway.  It’s only ridiculous because we haven’t stopped to question our traditions.

Wouldn’t joining together as a family to make a difference in the lives of total strangers be more in line with the true spirit of Christmas than buying each other cheap gifts from the mall?

The Life You’ve Always Wanted?

We all have our ideas of what the “perfect life” would be like but often the images in our mind are a far cry from the reality we are living.  If you were able to travel back in time and ask a younger version of yourself if this is the future they’d choose for themselves, what would their answer be?  Twenty years ago, could you have envisioned the life you have today?  Is it everything you’d imagined or have your dreams evaporated into thin air?

Chances are, the life you are living today is nothing like the life you expected to have.  You sold your ideals for a dollar bill.  Why?  “Because that’s just what adults do.” We have to make a living to pay the bills.  There’s food to buy and television to watch.  How are we supposed to save the world when we’re up to our eyeballs in debt?  The mortgage isn’t going to pay for itself, is it?

“It is what it is.” There’s no time for dreams.  Dreams don’t pay the bills or put food on the table.  Our younger selves didn’t understand what it meant to be adults.  We have obligations now and we’ve built our lives around some idea of what it means to be a “responsible adult” in today’s world.  What we ended up with is a career that steals our time and energy, a mortgage that drains our income and debt from all the Stuff we bought to furnish and decorate our home.  We have many thousands of dollars in Student Loans and a couple of cars to pay for.  Oh yeah, and the credit cards…

It looks like being an adult isn’t all that we’ve been led to believe.  All of our lives we’ve been told that adults are “responsible”, implying that it’s somehow more virtuous to fall in line and follow the leader than it is to follow our youthful ambitions.  The “responsible” thing to do is find a job, get married and have children, buy a house and a couple of cars, then keep your nose to the grindstone until it’s finally time to retire.  When that day does come, we hope that our health will last long enough to enjoy the life of our dreams; the life we’ve been waiting our whole life to live.

And what has it all amounted to?  A garage full of Stuff we never really needed in the first place, kids that seem to resent our very existence unless we’re buying them something, a spouse that we barely seem to know anymore and a huge house we aren’t able to enjoy because we are at the office earning a paycheck to pay the mortgage.

Sure, we have all the Stuff we could ever imagine.  We drive nice cars and wear nice clothes.  Our home is decorated like a magazine cover and on the weekends we are able to relax with a cold beer in the backyard.  On the surface things seem wonderful.  A little deeper though and things don’t look as good anymore.

What are we sacrificing to create this image of the “perfect” life?  Our time, our energy, our sanity?  If the average person starts working fresh out of college at the age of 22 and retires at 67, that’s 45 years of life sold for a dollar bill.  We’re trading our life to fill our garage with junk, for a heap of metal to take us to a job so that we can pay for that same heap of metal.

What if there were a different way?  What if you didn’t have to spend your entire life working?  Would you do it?  If you knew that in 10 years you could be financially able to walk away from your job with enough money to pay for all your expenses, would you have the ambition to make it happen?

There is a way, it is possible!  The only problem – of course there’s a problem – is that to get there, you have to minimize your spending and save.  “But that’s Un-American!” Our entire lives we’ve been told to “get out there and boost the economy.”  After the attacks on September 11 we were told to go shopping as a way to stand up against terrorism.  Does that mean we’re supporting terrorism by saving money?  Of course not!

What I’m talking about isn’t a new concept.  It isn’t impossible.  It’s been done before and it’ll be done again.  And not just by a few outliers but by many thousands of people.  Will you be one of them???

What’s the secret?

Live Frugally: Cut your expenses to the bone.  Anything that doesn’t offer real value to your life is out.  That might mean going without a contracted cell phone, cable television, TiVo or Netflix.  Find alternatives or other ways to occupy your time.  It may seem impossible now but you can live without these things.

Get Out of Debt: You can’t be financially independent when you’re in debt.  Get out, get out, get out! By adopting a frugal lifestyle, the extra money you’re able to save can be applied towards eliminating your debt.  After you’ve saved up enough money to cover six months of living expenses, every penny should be thrown at your debt.

Save: Once you’ve paid off the last of your debt it’s time to save like never before.  It may take you a few years, maybe even ten or 15, to save enough money to become financially independent but that’s better than 45 years!

Invest: This is where the magic is!  With the money you’ve saved, you can invest it into conservative investment vehicles which will pay you interest in fixed intervals over a specific length of time.  If you’ve saved and invested enough, this interest will cover all of your monthly expenses.  Now your money is working for you, not the other way around!

If you’d like to learn more about the process outlined above, I recommend checking out the book Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez.