I sometimes get the impression that at least half of the population doesn’t know what being poor is. Or at least doesn’t understand what being poor can be. I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or punch someone when I hear what people think does and does not constitute being poor.

I, Ty Unglebower, am poor. And I am not poor due to the fact that I can’t eat out four times weekly. (The national average regardless of income.) I am not poor because I drive a used car. Renting instead of owning is not what makes me poor, nor is the fact that I buy clothes once a year as opposed to once a month.

My idea of vacation is two nights in a cabin camping, and even then only after enough money has been saved. Actual vacations of more than a few days happen in my life every six or seven years.

If a website does not have a useful free membership, I do not join it no matter how worthy, because I do not have the money for a premium account. I only ever upgrade to the phones that are available for free with the renewal of my calling plan.

Yet none of these things are what make me poor. They are the things which, when you ask most people, are borderline immoral to be made to “suffer” through. As though in order to be a civilized, respectable human being, you must posses all of the things in that list which I currently lack. The very concept of being poor to such people revolves to a very large extent on what is convenient, trendy, or comfortable. The absence of those things simply means I am not middle class.

What makes me poor is the fact that as a freelance writer trying to break into more things, the paychecks are sporadic and smaller than they need to be for the moment. (I’m working on that.) Being poor means that I get help from my family to pay the rent that is required on this tiny apartment. That I share groceries with my mother who is five miles away, and with whom I may have to live again in the future. That I eat meals with her a few times a week. Being poor means that I have nothing saved at all because everything, everything I do get goes directly to some immediate expense, because I so rarely can contribute to some of my own basic needs.

I am poor in that there is no money in my checking account. And I mean no money. As in balance equals $0.00. Literally. Not that I “only” have a few hundred dollars socked away, and things are getting tight. Nothing.

In fact, I have no bank account with any local bank because they all require a minimum balance and require the applicant to have no debt, if you can believe that. I have plenty of student loan debt. So I am ineligible for even a no interest checking account around here. I have to endorse my paychecks for writing to my mother, who then will cash them for me at her bank.

So, I cannot invest in things like Blackberries. 16 gigs of computer memory. Hiring a tax professional, a resume writer, a job/life coach. A personal trainer. (All things that the rather conventional wisdom says each of us should spend money on, as part of “building our brand”.) A resume writer alone could be 500 dollars, and people toss that figure around as though it would be completely unheard of for someone to not have at least that much set aside for their own personal development.

Yes, it may hurt you for a month,” such people say, ” but this is an investment in your career. If you are not going to take yourself seriously enough to drop a few hundred dollars when it hurts, why will a hiring manager decide you are worth the company’s money? You wouldn’t perform your own open heart surgery. You call in the professional. Why won’t you give your career and personal brand the same professional treatment?”

Because…I…am…poor. Like, the real thing, “No shit! I have no money” type of poor.

Those who follow me on Twitter, or Brazen, or just here on the blog know by now about my ideas. About my writing abilities. About my experience and perceptions. About my accomplishments and my talents. I am not into “personal branding” at all, but if a brand emerges naturally out of the work and contributions an individual makes online, many of you are familiar with my so called brand. And I wonder how many of you might be shocked by just how poor I am.

Because you see, in addition to the “why not invest in a life coach” stuff, I also hear many other things which indicate that legions of people do not understand poor. 

You’re intelligent. Healthy. Young. Unattached. You have a college degree! You write very well. There is absolutely no way you could be truly poor. You are not homeless. You don’t panhandle. You can basically write your own ticket. Why haven’t you done so?

So intelligent people have no reason to be poor? The truly poor can only be those who are somehow damaged in the brain? Slow people? Retarded? Mentally ill? Begging for change on the Metro and sleeping under a bridge or over a grate. That’s poor, right?

No. That is homeless. That is one type of poor. The type that arises when nobody cares. Fortunately for me, I have a handful of people, (usually my mother) who do care, and won’t allow me to starve and wander the streets. But that could be the only reason I don’t do so. Because if I had to rely on my own income and savings right now to survive, I would be hitching my way to the nearest Metro station to set up shop. (And for those who say that I would just need to get any paying job for a while, I would advise you that before freelancing, I tried for five solid years to get a full time job and couldn’t do it. Reasons: Unknown.)

But a person as cultured, refined, and eloquent as me cannot possibly have to end up sleeping in a Metro station. I read, perform theatre. Am a top user at Brazen. I am working on a novel and have inspired people in ways I don’t even know. Surely I have no reason to be that poor. I can’t be only a mother’s love away from having nothing to eat or no place to stay.

I am certain you would all like to believe that. I am sure many people who don’t truly grasp poor are comforted by that notion. That to have all of the gifts I have is a ticket away from being poor.  I’d like to believe that as well. But I have lived my life too long to buy into that one.

I don’t believe I will be poor forever. I have to hold onto some hope that my life will make a turnaround now that I have rededicated it to my passions, as opposed to winning the rat race. As hard as it is to believe sometimes, I tell myself that at some point it will all pay off. That I will break even. That I will prosper. Not simply survive, and that only with the help of family.

But until that day, despite it’s obvious crippling problems for a freethinking artist like me, I must not be ashamed to be poor. I must own it. I must shine light upon it, and what it really is, not what the movies tell you it is. It is only in so doing that I can hope to change it. You cannot wrestle something from which you are always running away.

The poor exist. Those who have not broken even for most of their lives are out there. Around you. With you. Some of them are easy to spot. Easy to avoid. To cross a street to stay away from. And some of them are lazy. Homeless. Dirty. Addicted to booze and drugs.

But just as many, possibly even more of them, are hard working, cultured, polite and charming people with whom you converse every day. Who you share a ride on the Metro with instead of avoiding at the station. People with whom you exchange emails. Ideas. Hopes. People whom you would even hire, if you had a job to offer them, so much potential value do they represent.

The more horrifying thought is that they can be all of the above and still be homeless and begging. I do thank the Divinities that I am not one of them for right now.

But, despite having just enough food, a place to stay, and (older) clothes to cover my back, I still know the score.

I am Ty Unglebower and at the moment, I am poor. What do you think of me now?




  1. Robb H.


    I casually joined Brazen at the behest of a friend, and I rarely use it. In fact, the only reason I'm ever reminded of the fact that I ever joined at all is because you post something on it every 38 seconds. I rarely read your submissions (no offense intended, it's not a reflection of your writing skills or the quality of the content, I just get hundreds of emails a day and hit the delete button on the vast majority of them) but this one caught my eye.

    I couldn't agree more with what you've said, and the general spirit in which it was intended.

    I grew up in a rural town to chronically under-employed parents, got a lot of my food from the local food shelf, shared a bed with siblings in the winter to stay warm, all that mess.

    And now I'm “successful” in DC with an Ivy League degree in hand, and no one in my sphere has any idea what being poor means. They think it means not being able to send your kids to private school.

    Poverty is a feeling I'll never forget and it guides me wherever I go. It's become the singlemost defining experience of my life.

    Just wanted to say thanks for your post, it's nice to know someone in the Metro gets it. Best,


  2. I agree that most Americans have no real concept of being poor. I would also say many middle class people are actually poor. They may make a lot more money than you, but they spend it all (or more) too. I have a friend who constantly complains about her pay and not having enough money to pay the bills. Yet she got a new iPhone as soon as it came out and always has new clothes. And she eats out for lunch most days. She makes around $35,000, not high by most standards, but not poor either. Yet she is poor because she spends more than she makes each month.
    Even people who are really “poor” often don't live that way. I volunteered for Big Brothers Big Sisters in college and my little sister was poor. Tiny apartment, sharing a room with several siblings, holey clothes, etc. Yet they had a 55 inch TV and tons of movies. What? No wonder people aren't always inclined to give to the poor!

  3. Thanks to you both for your comments. I am particularly moved by your story, Robb. If someone in your position sees what it is I am trying to convey, I know I have delivered my message.

    And Lindsey, you make excellent point. And I have encountered the same types. It is always particularly striking when people with kids live beyond their means. No clothing for them but plenty of entertainment money spent. Certainly living within one's means is a major aspect of all of this. I try to do so.

  4. Ty, this is an exceptional essay. I can't say I've read anything as honest and striking elsewhere in the blogosphere.

    I'm quite a bit older than you, so I guess this is where I'm supposed to say, “Hey, bud, chin up, it gets better.” But you already know that, so I will keep my yap shut.

    I understand your message is far, far deeper than struggling at the freelance life. But I'm also a dad, and so I'm going to recommend that you pick up a copy of Peter Bowerman's “The Well-Fed Writer” (or re-read it if you own it). It helped me pull myself out of a freelancing drought back in Year 2 of my business, and I think you might find you can ratchet up your game.

  5. I sympathize with your situation, especially since I am currently living near your definition of poor. I'm surprised how many people (who are not poor) don't want to talk about this, and I'm surprised how repulsive I find their complaints about such luxuries as where to go for vacation, which new car to buy, etc. I think we live in a society that values flash over substance, so people with talent such as yours are often not adequately rewarded.

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