Brainstorming a Guide to ‘How To Be Poor (But NOT Powerless)’ — a very messy WIP

From just the things that came on the news today,

Los Angeles will be voting ASAP on a ‘humane’ way to remove homeless people from nearby parks, beneath underpasses, and on many sidewalks, (perhaps inspired by the expulsion of homeless neighbors from Echo Park),

FEMA is all ‘no comment’ on an NPR investigation showing their own awareness that their handling of Katrina was unfair to poor people (and marginalized racial groups) where ‘equal opportunities’, did not end in ‘equal outcomes’…

A friend also suggested Kelly Hernández’ “City of Inmates” as it goes into how (indigenous?) people may have literally built much of LA, (city of angels) as the strategy was to pay them in alcohol, then they would be arrested for the night for violating vagrancy laws, and the following mornings they would be auctioned off, forced to work… to go back to building more of LA…

I also wanted to make a ‘How To Be Poor (But not Powerless)’ because certain things really have shifted from how I thought I would be navigating life at 36, and I mean this quite literally because although I arrived at these strategies quite intuitively, where in an ideal world, this is NOT how I would have come across very vital information:

  • Everything useful that helped me through the Unemployment process came from searching randomly on YouTube. i.e. “How to get a live person EDD unemployment issues” and scrolling through the comments section. It wasn’t through friends, mutual aid networks, or through vast connections over social media. Essentially, I was lucky enough to live in California where ‘Googling it’ produced immediate results with numerous people who were in the SAME boat as me.
  • Once I followed ‘activists’ on social media (and double checked their sources) i.e. influencers like @_lyneezy / @blackforager / @workingclasshistory
    With their posts I’ve learned more in a matter of weeks compared to years in K-12 education and how to implement better structures into my life (such as resting more) and that’s with plenty of very nice public school teachers who somehow never let on that I probably have ADHD.

Even this blog post still seems to me like an absurd place that anyone would chat about ‘being poor’… but it feels like it’s one big gesture of solidarity that goes both ways. So if ya’ll don’t mind, I might just weave in and out of ideas I’m working through at the moment, all at once, if you can imagine that…

As we are emerging out of a pandemic lockdown, (and thinking about how one celebrates Juneteenth) what does “going back to normal” mean? What does that look like? I thought I’d take a moment to talk about what I’ve learned while being on Unemployment/Food-stamps/Medi-Cal because, for me personally, at some point I will be losing those benefits, and that will be the biggest transition I will have to make.

I’ve been too afraid to ask (or jinx it), but considering I’m part of the 10% of the US population that is unemployed (I’ve heard that in economics, one of the reasons it’s recommended that governments take in active role in keeping unemployment low is to keep social unrest at bay?) how likely is it that ‘a livable life’ will even come in the form of ‘getting back to work?’

(Personalized & Edited from a report put out by the Omidyar Network & The Guild of Future Architects that is a totally imaginative version of a report. Even though my version is actually much more boring than theirs, I just want to model ‘Doing Less with More’ by taking wholesale from an existing, clear template. Other reports I’ve been looking at include the Edelman Trust Barometer where they recommend that since more people trust businesses (incl. CEOs) than the government or mainstream media or even community leaders, that these CEOs could potentially guide the way to a more equitable society… to which I say… THAT’S SOME BULLSHIT, businesses only get involved when something hurts their bottom line, trees are still worth more dead than alive when the main incentive is profit. But maybe I’m missing something? It seems like activists have been up to some new strategies…)

If such a ‘How to be Poor (But not Powerless)’ had some main takeaways maybe it might be:

DON’T GIVE UP! GET AWAY FROM INDIVIDUALIST SPIRALING! YOU ARE NOT MEANT TO GO THIS ALONE!

(If I’ve ever personally helped you with this, somehow it’s easier for me to extend this vision to others than it is to actually apply it to myself. It actually really really helped me to re-find the ‘memes’ that I put at the beginning of this post)

LITERALLY EVERYTHING IS SCARIER IN THE NOT YET HAVING DONE IT YET STAGE

(and it’s inconvenient/confusing/ by design, and this includes staying on unemployment, I mean… I’ve never driven this far on no gas… how far can this vehicle go??? So exciting!)

IT AIN’T OVER TIL IT’S OVER BABY

(and by this I mean not only the pandemic, but it’s also the Department of Social Services sending me a letter in the mail saying that I no longer am getting food stamps, that I no longer qualified for Medi-Cal, and ALL of them were supposedly incorrectly sent and would have made matters worse if I had re-applied for Covered CA. This goes well beyond ‘don’t disqualify yourself’!)   

Would the HTBP(NP) brochure be practical? If so I’m sure it’d pull from:

  • Beth Pickens money workshop (On Baggage, On building up a Fuck-off Fund’, On starting no matter how small for retirement, On staying away from predatory Credit)
  • Neil Gaiman’s advice on how people get Freelance work when you only really need 2 out of the 3 qualities:
    • The work is good
    • They are easy to get along with
    • They deliver the work on time. 

      People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. People will forgive the lateness of your work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as everyone else if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.
  • A friend’s advice that “You’ll never go hungry if you work at a cafeteria”
  • My friend Anna, saying that as a parent one needs less than you’d think (to support a family.)

In each instance there’s a real emphasis on THE BARE MINIMUM IS FINE, but then again I feel like so much unpacking still needs to be done because surely the answer isn’t JUST survive despite ones circumstances… 

[I was halfway through a post about meds, will come back to that later…]

Just like how I was interested in what it would mean to be ‘ok’ with just being ‘ok’, the idea of settling for a ‘mediocre’ life bristled people for one reason or another (turns out that’s just depression, yay!), I feel like this is an even thornier issue, to self-identify as ‘poor’ in contrast to what my parents’ socioeconomic status is, but when I think about where the stigma comes from… it does make me want to champion it, like the way that people have reclaimed ‘Queer’.

I want to fight against the notion that there is something inherently negative about being poor, disabled, or simply, being different. At the same time I don’t think it’s appropriate to make a ‘The JOY of Being Poor: You only have to wash 1 bowl because you only own 1 bowl’ (as a post/guide/etc), but I want to talk about it precisely because it really feels unsettling.

There is so much talk right now about how giving/receiving government assistance in any way means taking away agency, and especially is an assumption that all ___insert minority here___ are seen as inherently tragic, or that it’s keeping people from reaching their full potential: working for wages! But also, it seems like there’s a lot of baggage to separate as well.

THE HARD, INDIRECT PART (Besides Survival, Besides individually thriving, “it’s not personal, in fact it’s communal”):

It’s not like this idea of poor = bad is coming out of nowhere! It somehow is fundamental to people’s pitches on the meaning of life and work. I even think there’s some insidious connection to be made too about the model minority, this clean Asian-American male with clarity and charisma… an Andrew Yang type successful business man type…

Link to more info on the video where I went down a rabbit hole wanting to de-construct it

I realllly got obsessed with the idea of re-writing Rich Dad, Poor Dad which is the bible of ‘understanding how wealth works’ as if strategic decisions in a merit-based society is primarily how wealth is made and maintained in America, with no conversation about the importance of a robust estate tax on inherited wealth… I wonder though if they hate the government more than lazy workers though:


Even the fairly conservative Forbes at some point started adding asterisks to the ‘Top Wealthiest Americans’ rating to reveal more about if their wealth was inherited or earned. Because even they thought the distinction was important enough to note.

Of course the economists always gotta have their ‘macro’ say…

I also think these scattered obsessions with locating the stigma of being poor is my way of trying to process learning that ago a friend left LA abruptly and drove all the way to the East coast and they’re still homeless, and I don’t know what to do with this feeling of needing to understand what makes life LIVABLE, to be able to CONVEY such a thing, and talk about ABUNDANCE…

In my grief I feel compelled to be making follow ups to “How to Advocate for Yourself at the Doctors Office” (which overall had pretty dark messages, but felt powerful and directly joyful when seeing all of it put together) as well as a follow up to my newsletter: “Well How About That” which casually documents the inspiring shifts and hard won battles in supposedly ‘radical’ politics and given the time of day for how momentous it all is together.

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”.
Ursula K. LeGuin

So I wish this project was something me and this friend could be working on together… I actually wish we were all writing it together, maybe 15 of us… as if these pages yet to be written were enough of a bond to keep our intellectual selves tethered to a purpose… a kind of usefulness like work…

where we co-locate stigmas around ‘seeking help’ and ‘being needy’, and can bring about self-compassion much easier when we can realize that there IS white supremacy or colonialism or capitalism at play that too many people (maybe even ourselves) have normalized/internalized or become resigned, believing that we are the problem, not a greater systemic issue that is the problem, not one that we can affect in any meaningful way.

I had the pleasure of transcribing an ‘ideal housing situation with a formerly homeless friend. It reminded me of what it means to do the work of ‘being’ with each other in a completely speculative capacity that wasn’t just connected people flexing. It was neither fantastical nor immediately useful nor a get-rich-quick-scheme. (Speaking in the 3rd person) It was simply a foray into being semi-rational human beings that wanted to believe that their trauma could be used to co-whittle a thing… just a little imaginative exercise, which seems so important to freely brainstorm ‘solutions’ that go on and on in their details, without ending any avenues abruptly with incessant doubt. I mean it feels much healthier than the ways that often you will hear people describe their ‘get rich quick scheme’ (or even more uncomfortable, ones beliefs of who really “is poor” and who isn’t), which I wish people could unpack as a kind of unspoken powerlessness trauma response, a scarcity mindset, a shift away from the important work of solidarity, psychic energy that is covertly diverted, not dissimilar from the excitement of spending money on a lottery ticket.

(The big idea was plans for how to create ideal housing for the chronically homeless from someone who never wants to be homeless ever again, and it was a reaction to something I said about how I wish there were mandates to diversify all of the areas that continue to be sites of red-lining and settler colonialism and compared it to NIMBYs who don’t want to live anywhere near homeless people.)

She also gave me the Best ‘boots-on-the-ground’ practical input for ‘How to be Poor (But Not Powerless)’ and it involved:

  • When dealing with Section 8 housing, having a doggedness in getting the actual contact info of people’s supervisors and their supervisors and their supervisor
  • Getting the pamphlet ASAP on local Section 8 housing to know your rights (it sounded like it explains a lot of the timing of things)
  • And also something about keeping appointments by any means necessary with when a city inspector can come by to look at the housing you’re being offered, this way bullsh*t can be sorted much more quickly, of which there will be… a lot of bullsh*t to wade through…

Other influences to a potential HTBP(NP) I’m sure would come from:


To end this very long post,

I also wanted to put out there that such a brochure would really need to talk about relying on each other. I reflect back on this time during the worldwide pandemic as I realize that everything I’ve been up to was essentially mutual aid groups (which is also a big part of forming ones own family) for myself with others.

  • Kinship Group (which my homeless friend is a part of), about 14 of us who formed the basis for a CoVID pod, my chosen family.
  • Solidarity Club reminded me of the world to be built, beyond wage labor, beyond communicating over Instagram/Facebook; it was about tech that surrounds us matching ones values, and surprisingly it was an outlet for ADHD inquiries. Unlike any other group from Navel.LA, no one was trying to turn this into a potential money making project. I wonder what it’d be like if people from the Hip Magic class, had had the same amount of passion to remain in conversation with each other.
  • Canela Art Gallery provided a way to collaborate on anti-racist work and de-colonizing my mind, while still trying to be an artist and educator and friend. I think it also stemmed from me being invited to FEELS anti-Black racism processing group that met up every 2 weeks but at one point was every week.
  • J Moon’s ‘Rev School’ was proof that one can get paid and work with people and have the absolute highest ideals.  It is my new baseline for thriving.
  • I of course created small bi-weekly ‘ADHD conference’ hikes which was entirely about mutual aid: Helping people out of toxic situations, encouraging self-compassion, self-diagnosis, illegally sharing meds, and probably more!

Unofficially I also created my own mutual aid group on top of all these things where every Thursday from 7-8 pm PST, where I’d try to force myself into doing studio time and every month I’d e-mail and invite 24+ artist friends to try to join me. Usually just my friend Stephanie Glazier would show up at my 8 pm, their 11 pm, and we’d chat for a while until they fell asleep, but for the most part, it was kindof a failure. What this kindof transformed into instead was scheduling long overdue studio visits with friends I didn’t know as intimately as I would like and every conversation was serendipitous and demystifying and empowering. Most recently, I asked if 3 friends could be my accounta-bili-buddies and so far it seems to be really effective to getting me to show up to do yoga for even just 15 minutes.

Other things I want to do: Make a TLDR of a panel/training put on by MAD PRIDE and will see how that fits into that overall brochure too…

2 thoughts on “Brainstorming a Guide to ‘How To Be Poor (But NOT Powerless)’ — a very messy WIP

  1. Some comments I’ve gotten already so far (sent to me via e-mail):
    *** *** ***
    “very interesting thoughts on being poor. it’s true. if people were to claim the label and build class solidarity…it would surely be a threat to existing powers that be. to be poor in america is to be a ‘failure’. hopefully more ppl are waking up to the realization that it is not their fault and that structural inequality orchestrated by the elite is to blame!”
    *** *** ***

    *** *** ***
    “Yeah I think it is a great idea. I think the thing about spreading your ideas message is that it builds solidarity. Like when I was a kid I was embarrassed about my parents old car. I used to make them drop me off a block from my school on the occasions they drove me. Now I am that parent with the old car – a 21 year old car. I keep waiting for my kids to get embarrassed but instead they think it is cool that I have a tape cassette in my car. I think they are emotionally healthier than I was at their age and more confident because they go to a progressive school in a progressive city that teaches empathy and collaborative team work and fosters the notion that diversity is great. I also went to a progressive school in a progressive city but it was during the Reagan era and the feeling that money was necessary and designer jeans a requirement for social status and Benetton and all these expensive things was truly oppressive. I think we as little micro cultures here and there are WAY healthier. And it is because of finding solidarity and not trying to conform. I think if you write this pamphlet and put it out in the world it will be a positive radiating bearer of the comforting idea that it is ok to not make have or pursue money as a societal goal. I don’t mean poor people should not be mad or try to create more equity (I don’t like the super rich and super poor dichotomy to be clear!) but if having less is always ostracized than having less will always be harder to be happy with and if we could all be happier with a little less we could live more lightly on this planet and make sure everyone has enough at least. So I like the idea of empowering this message and at the same time the rich need to be disempowered (that state of being). It needs to be made less appealing and demystified.”

    [Same person, on the topic how you don’t need as much as you may think…]
    “Also you don’t need a lot of space. A small house or space is nice for a family because your kids like to be physically close to you anyway.”
    *** *** ***

  2. when i first heard the concept, “how to be poor,” i imagined it would go in an entirely different direction. as someone who also learned the hard way in regards to navigating social programs when i found myself unemployed at 32, the process was incredibly frustrating and at times, humiliating. i couldn’t fathom that the information could be valuable to someone else and ease their transition.

    finding myself in similar circumstances three years later and navigating the same programs through my grad school program, reading this inspired me to create my own resource guide for other students in my program who may be going through the same.

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