The newspapers are full of statistics about how many people are living in poverty, which is defined only by income: $11,139 for a single person and $22,314 for a family of four. But the circumstances of other factors are not at all considered. Let’s reflect on them a bit, since I’m roughly at the poverty level for a single person.
First, I’m mystified by that $139. That’s a little over ten dollars a month. But it DOES make a difference. Until the last few months I could buy everything I truly needed in a month and still have $5 left at the end. Now if I bought everything, I’d end up $5 in the hole. But in the past there was a nearby book store that would buy my used books, which sometimes boosted my monthly income by as much as $60. Now that book store has left. There is a free-lance market here in Montana that would buy stories for $40 each, but that market is faltering. Small amounts make a big difference.
A few years ago I could see that something was going wrong with the Big Picture of money management, so I consolidated all my debts and credit cards into one big loan with a payment of several hundred dollars a month. That payment is what is crimping me badly now, but it will be paid in a year. When my mother died a decade ago and left me $30,000, I bought this house for that amount. Some of the consolidation debt had gone to appliances and small upgrades of kitchen and bathroom. Because I borrowed, I’ve enjoyed those for the past ten years. If I had to pay rent, it would mean twice what my loan consolidation payment is and I would always be in danger of landing in the street. Even now, my tax bill is sometimes delinquent and the sheriff threatens me with auction.
But the lesson that I was slow to learn and that the Town of Valier still has not learned, is that when someone buys something, that doesn’t mean it will be cost-free afterwards. Maintenance is often roughly what the cost of acquisition was. So the “free” flowerbeds in front of the Town Hall are now a continuing expense for labor, water, and flower starts. (They replace two “aged out” trees which had only been watered.) Being poor means owning something you can’t maintain. On the other hand, as soon as I became a house-owner, my credit went up and a lot of coaxers paid attention.
Some things vital to a writing life cost nothing now, like my carefully acquired library of reference books. (Almost every book printed about Blackfeet, for instance.) But others are vampires: a printer can suck up $100 in toner per month. The computer and Internet costs $85 a month for a telephone connection and Internet account. On the other hand, the cost of xeroxing a manuscript and mailing it is pretty much obsolete. Going in the other direction are “reading fees” from the agent or editor who handles the slush pile.
But every household is ASSUMED to have internet access now, if only at the library. The pharmacist found an old prescription the other day, not very expensive (a good example of this same thing -- blood glucose test strips at $1 each for a little machine that cost about $40), and casually debited my bank account, throwing me within $1.50 of being overdrawn. If she hadn’t included a bill when she mailed me the strips and hadn’t hurried to reverse the debit when I called her on the phone, I would have been overdrawn for a cost of $30 penalty, which would have thrown every subsequent check into overdraft. The banks do not notify people of overdrafts, even though they have my email and could do it for no cost. If I didn’t pick up my mail daily, check my bank account electronically every day or so, and have a phone to call her right away, I could have run up hundreds of dollars in debt. In short, without the ability to constantly and electronically monitor one’s finances, there are tiger pits.
One of the major variables of poverty is population density. Travel in Montana is a matter of individual vehicles -- the public transit of the Sixties is much diminished. Gas, of course, is far more expensive. Maintaining a vehicle is more expensive since they acquired internal computers, since insurance has become mandatory, since the standards for emissions and so on have risen. It costs me about $30 to drive to Great Falls. The city dwellers do NOT drive to the outliers. That means a conference with the Montana Historical Society about Bob’s estate costs me about twice my monthly Great Falls grocery trip. I can no longer cross the border into Canada because I would have to pay $100 to renew my passport -- I didn't use to need a passport.
Some costs are out of one’s control and personal money may not make a difference. Valier’s electricity is undependable -- there was a two or three hour “brownout” on Sunday at suppertime. Three Rivers, my internet provider, is so overloaded by school kids after supper that I can’t get online to do my own research. In this part of the world the Internet is not seen as an instrument of business except by ranchers watching the stock market, even though many transactions are online if you think about swipe cards in restaurants and service stations. The US government is considering subsidies for infrastructure upgrades but only for the cities where people live on their Smart Phones. A quarrel about siting a cell tower in Valier has left us continuing the practice of going outside to make calls. “Can you hear me now?”
They talk about closing the post offices. The city people say, “Oh, no problem. I just use the package service in my local mall.” Valier has no mall, only one small family store. Then why live here? Because I don’t have to take a vacation to Glacier Park -- I already live here. I escape the steady Walmartian pressure to acquire a new whatever instead of fixing the old one. I have clean air (when there’s no forest fire).
But the state keeps enforcing higher and higher standards for the management of water and sewer, so those costs are rising. The guy who sends in the water tests says they are so detailed and numerous that he devotes one workday a week to the task. But, of course, we could buy a machine that would do that for $10,000. Which came first? The machine or the requirements? The Town has just approved $25,000 for an engineer to find out why so often we don’t comply with the state requirements, since our system is relatively new. You think the engineers didn’t lobby for higher standards? Yet authorities permit “frakking” of old oil wells that may contaminate the ground water for the whole region. There is a high cost in terms of time, effort and alertness in a rural place.
We even keep an eye on each other. According to the statistics keepers on the monitoring websites, Valier has two sex predators. (We already know. One is so ancient he can barely walk.) I was once told we had three active drug peddlers. We have a few soreheads, an excellent library (still people who read paper books), a lot of growing families, dozens of old solitary people (like me), a newly remodeled Catholic church, a stable school system, people who know how to fix stuff and do stuff, and so on. Not bad for a few more than 300 people. The real point is that we know each other -- or think we do. Some of us are too impressed by prosperity and appearances. Some of us are hustlers. Most of us are pretty solid. That’s the wealth that cannot be measured in dollars.