Money Mic: Why You’re Not Actually Poor


People have a lot of opinions about money.

In our “Money Mic” series, we hand over the podium to someone with a strong opinion on a financial topic. These are their views, not ours, but we welcome your responses.

Today, LearnVest reader Kimberlee Stiens explains what she thinks it means to actually be poor–and why most of us aren’t.

I am sick of hearing about the trials and tribulations of the middle class.

Politicians constantly talk about strengthening the middle class (which is shrinking) or accuse their opponents of waging war on it, when I think the middle class, on the whole, has little cause to complain.

I’ve seen women here on LearnVest and in my daily life complain about making $40,000 a year, saying that’s not enough to support themselves (to which I would add: “in the lifestyle to which they’ve become accustomed”).

The poverty line in America is $22,350 a year … for a family of four. In 2010, a full 15% of Americans lived below this threshold. Most American adults will live below that threshold for at least one year of their lives.

That’s why I think we need to change the way we talk about being “poor” or “middle class.”

I Know Because I Grew Up Poor

I became middle class for the first time ever only about a year ago. I grew up fairly poor, my father being generally unable to keep a job and my mother not having legal standing to work in this country. (Complicated story, but she’s Canadian and only recently got U.S. residency–I think she always intended to go back there.) I graduated college with some $60,000 in student loans and a temporary internship position for a congressional campaign paying $250 a week. At least it came with free housing.

I graduated with a degree in political science and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but was mostly looking for admin office jobs. When I started college, I harbored the same illusions as the rest of my graduating class: We were freshmen in 2004, when almost all undergrads could count on getting a job after graduation, and we finished college in the middle of the Great Recession.

After the congressional campaign, I worked at a fast food restaurant for two years while constantly applying for office jobs. I made no more than $10 an hour, with no benefits. So when I managed to get an internship in Washington, D.C. working for the Marijuana Policy Project, I jumped on it. I worked for $9 an hour until I was promoted to my first full-time, salaried position as a membership assistant, at $35,000 a year, with paid vacation and health benefits.

Finally, at age 25, I was middle class, but I didn’t know it yet.

It’s Our Choices That Define Us

I work at a non-profit, a sector where salaries are notoriously “low.” Yet most of my peers here make at least $30,000 yearly. We all have health care and other benefits.

After I started my job, I realized that, for the first time, my life was no longer about what I could and couldn’t afford. It was about how I chose to spend my money. I could no longer blame the externalities of a cruel world for keeping me down.

Now I’m the office manager and executive assistant to our executive director at the same organization where I had my first internship. I make $39,000 a year (I negotiated my raise!), and live in Washington, DC, one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. I’m paying off my student loans, and I’m doing fine.

Given that I encounter more than one panhandler on my walk to work each day, it seems delusional that anyone complains that $35,000 a year makes them “poor.” I live in D.C. and work on the Hill, where there’s a culture of made-up poverty. Many staffers work long hours and live in shared housing, but they all tend to make salaries of at least $25,000 with health benefits (and they have plenty of opportunity to move up after they put in their time!). Everyone complains about being poor, but then goes out to drinks each week.

It’s not that they have it easy. They just don’t understand how much easier they have it than some.

Try Another Perspective

I’m not trying to diminish anyone’s experience. I know that dipping below a standard of living you’ve always enjoyed will feel pretty crappy. My point is that, comparatively speaking, it’s not actually all that crappy. Many middle class people, particularly those who have never really been poor, don’t seem to see that there’s a whole other side to the economy that they never experience, like this writer who struggles to pay for friends’ weddings. I’ve met people who have spent 20 years in food service, with no health care, no bonuses and usually kids to support.

There are middle class people who say they just can’t live in D.C. or New York City on $40,000 a year, but there are also people in those same places living on minimum wage. Take a look at the invisible people around you who make your life tick–your cleaners, the person making your drinks, your interns–and imagine how they make ends meet.

It’s a choice that you make to feel disadvantaged. If you make $33,000 a year, the truth is, you are actually in the top 50% of wage-earners.

Everyone can, and should, do a little more to manage their finances better. And while studies may show that we don’t feel truly comfortable or secure in our finances until we reach between $50,000 and $75,000 a year, it’s a bit dramatic for people to feel anything other than lucky when depositing their salaried paychecks.

Kim lives in Washington, DC where she works as an office manager for a medium-sized non-profit. She blogs at Business for Good, not Evil.



  • MamaK

    This was the most stupid and ignorant article I have read in a long time. Wish I could get back the time I took to read it.

  • Pheonix Rising

    Clearly written by a single, childless person.  Try earning $35k as a divorced mother of two with a mortgage and you’ll feel poor very quick!!!

  • CrankyFranky

    good article thanks – yes as I am reminded by – my income puts me in the top 1% of world population, and in my country (Oz) the dole/unemployment benefits for doing nothing puts you in the top 13% of world population

    I always remember a TV talk show where a woman in the audience got up and proclaimed ‘we have 4 kids – my husband earns $100,000pa – and it’s NOT ENOUGH!!’ – she was indignant with rage – and didn’t quite seem to understand the audience’s jaw-drop and giggling at her lack of self-awareness …

  • Axedatta

    While i understand what the author is complaining about, it seems to be relative. I grew up in India, the poor there would KILL to be the poor in the US. This article seems like something the the top 1% would approve of; basically saying “be happy with what you have and never strive to make more, because hey at least you’re not poor.” Well yes someone making 40K year even in DC is not “poor” but they certainly arent living the life. Someone will always be worse of than you, does that mean you should be complacent with where you are in life? Of course we should be grateful that we live in the US,(as an immigrant who chose to move to the US, i can understand that better than some people who were lucky just to be born here ) but we should strive to make it a better place where no one should have to settle for what they have living in one of the richest countries on earth. 


    Wow. You seem to be living in the moment and enjoying it! I find it off putting that you did not mention purchasing a home, or retiring at a reasonable age. If eating and having a roof over your head is your end game, then sister- you have got it made.

  • Universityc

    I’m sure this will be completely repetitive but as most people will tell you the “plight” of the middle class is that they are literally stuck in the middle.

    I am a single female. I currently make around $22,000 per year, putting me in the category of middle class. Let me first be very specific. I do not buy anything unnecessary. I don’t have an emergency fund because I cannot afford to put any money into it. I budget like mad, accounting for every penny. However, with student loans and cost of living I am barely making it by. I spend approx. $10 on ingredients for a meal that will have to last me two weeks. Last pay period it was my typical “poor mans soup” which consists of various hearty ingredient thrown into a large pot, cooked up and then frozen for the weeks to come. I don’t qualify for a hardship deferment or public assistance. I can only scrape by until I manage to either rid myself of enough debt to give myself a comfortable cushion or get a new career with higher pay. I have many friends on public assistance. I don’t begrudge them for it, but they are a lot more comfortable then I am. Many times they have been kind enough to feed me, since food is really a last priority in my budget, coming after electricity and student loan payments. Perhaps this is because I know I will find food one way or another.

    One last thing to think about is that it can be really embarrassing to ask people for help when you are considered “rich” or at least “wealthy” enough not to qualify for public assistance. People think if you need help but you make enough money that the state won’t give you help, you must be squandering your money somewhere. This is simply not true anymore. In my state the majority of people taking advantage of food pantries, are the middle class workers who cannot afford to pay their bills and eat.  

  • spedexaminer

    How dare you say this is blatantly false. If there are different kinds of federal employees, then explaiin the difference. Don’t flame me. My dad work for social security his whole life and spent many hours working side jobs so he could get his 40 quarters of time. He retired some years ago and maybe things have changed. I am a city goverment employee who does pay into BOTH SS AND a separate system. My spouse is a city employee who does NOT pay into SS but pays into a state retirement system.

  • Vixter2

    You think the middle class has little cause to complain? Really??? And “To which I would add: “in the lifestyle to which they’ve become accustomed”)?? Wow!

    That “lifestyle” to which you refer is what many in the middle class worked very hard to achieve. And now it is being taken away from them.

    When you “move up after putting in [your] time” and someone or something comes along and takes it away from you just remember how “lucky [you are] when depositing [your] paycheck.”

  • facepalm

    I can agree that we all take for granted just how well off we are. I think what we complain about is the ever increasing disparity. It takes so much more to be able to have what used to be almost a given if you worked hard in this country. That’s still not to say that what you can get isn’t better than what 99% of the rest of the world’s population has access to. However, I would agree that while I feel comfortable with what I am able to earn (read: earn and SAVE/INVEST), it seems unfair that I should just accept how lucky I am because that means that I can accept that someone else who worked just as hard as I have just happened to be unlucky, while our policies continue to support growing wealth/income inequality. I don’t know…I agree with you on basically everything, I just urge you to reconsider your views on the “made up” assault on the middle class. As a nation we could and should be doing more to make sure the middle class grows in number.

  • Jessica M Cole

    I Totally agree! But now a-days i find it so sad when people who just spend spend spend on credit always and complain about how they have no money… almost no one calls them out on it, but when someone is trying to watch their money and save and such, they are called ‘cheap’ not fair!

  • JR

    The statement “If you make $33,000 a year, the truth is, you are actually in the top 50% of wage-earners.” is inaccurate. If you look at the Census Bureau figures on median family income there is no state in which the median income for a single wage-earner is $33k. If you have a different citation for data that would be useful. I point this out because it undermines the message when inaccurate statistics are quoted.

    • ValleyForSanity

      She is talking about an individual, not a family. Your number is for a family, not an individual.

  • ValleyForSanity

    Great article. Good reminders. Rent is higher in DC than other places – so the poverty level should be adjusted – but $40,000/year for one person is not poor anywhere. Thank you for writing this.