Generation Poor

For the last month I have been stalked. Not by a typical stalker. This one was worse. This one worked for the U.S. government.An employee of the U.S. Census Bureau hunted me down. This woman called on the phone, stopped by my house, and generally scared the bejeezus out of me. I should explain. A couple of months ago, this woman -- I'll call her Tammy Faye (you guess why) -- sent me a letter explaining that the government had "randomly" chosen my apartment to be part of a "scientific survey" of what a typical American spent in a year. Tammy Faye said she planned to ask me exactly how and on what I spent every last cent -- as well as how I how I got those cents to begin with.Not being much of a consumer -- as well as a complete paranoid about the government -- I said, "No way, Tammy Faye." The whole thing smelled like conspiracy spirit. After all, when was the last time the government paid attention to me? When it decided to ditch the idea of universal health care? When it decided I didn't qualify for college loans?Since the government wasn't doing much for me or my generation, I was hardly jumping for joy with the idea of revealing the innermost details of my life to a complete stranger who bore the government imprint. Washington could find someone else to invade.In the interest of keeping my private finances (or lack thereof) private, I called the U.S. Census Bureau in Boston to find out what was up. According to Bureau spokesman Bruce Kaminsky, being chosen for this survey was "like winning the lottery -- except you don't really win anything." Great.My participation in the survey, Kaminsky informed me, would be a "great service to my country and Government." My life's data would be used to help set the Consumer Price Index, which determines the cost of living in the U.S. Employers and the government use the CPI to calculate cost-of-living raises and increases in social security payments for millions of Americans.Despite my desire to serve the powers that be, I kept saying no. According to Tammy Faye, the survey was strictly "volunteer" -- so I was declining to volunteer. Again and again, my roommates and I refused her government advances as we would some slimy suitor. She kept it up full force, keeping my roommates chatting with her even when call-waiting beeped in. She even came to our house unannounced. Scary stuff.My reasons for refusing to participate ran as follows: I work in a video store. I shop at the Salvation Army. I don't buy TVs or stereos, I inherit them from dead relatives. How was I going to determine how much a box of cereal costs, or what people with real money spend on their home entertainment centers? Why should Washington care what I spend on second-hand T-shirts at Sal's Ultra Boutique?I couldn't understand this vigorous pursuit. Unless -- here's the conspiracy part -- Washington wanted to interview people like me. Unless Tammy Faye was looking for folks who get by on less in order to justify reducing those aforementioned cost-of-living raises.This isn't paranoia. Something called the Boskin Commission, which was appointed by the federal government, recommended that the CPI be reduced due to the following logic: If you can't eat steak, you can substitute chicken. If you can't afford to go to the movies, you can watch TV.Yeah, and if, like me, you live on marshmallow fluff sandwiches and your TV blew up a couple of months ago, you're better off than people with fluff-less bread and no busted screen? I hardly think the fact that I've learned to substitute high fashion for slightly stained second-hand styles should prevent someone else from getting a 3 percent wage increase.The whole Tammy Faye assault got me thinking about my lifestyle, about the way the media portrays young people like my friends and me. I hate the term "slacker" almost as much as I hate the phrase "Generation X." Generation P is more like it: P for Poor.No one I know fits into the Gen X stereotype of sitting around not caring about anything, slurping cappuccinos or imported beers paid for by their parents, reveling in poverty. No one I know is a slacker.Me, I'm hunting for a second job, just so I can save up to go back to school. I don't spend my time whining like Winona Ryder in Reality Bites. No one I know resembles any character in that horrible Richard Linklater movie Slacker. (What a boring movie: a bunch of twentysomethings hanging out in coffee shops, thinking that their 50-cent word lazy attitude is so avant garde cool. Yuck.) It isn't cool or trendy to not be able to go to school because one class costs over $900 and neither you nor your parents can come up with the cash for the semester deadline.My portion of the rent is $333, and I only make about $160 a week at my job when the hours are good. Don't forget about groceries, phone bills, pet food, car insurance, gas and God help me, cigarettes. (Give me a break -- I'm working on it.) Forget movies, or going to bars (I don't drink or do drugs), seeing bands or going out to eat. I find low-cost ways to keep myself amused.My time is spent at my internship at the local paper, driving local radio talk show hosts mad and typing in TV schedules. When I'm not there, I'm at a local video store telling irate college students that yes, their late fee for Jules and Jim is quite valid and they need to pay it.Meanwhile, I'm agonizing over how to pay my rent, or how to buy Kellogg's fascist Froot Loops at $4 a box. (I mean really, cereal, no matter how sugar loaded, should be affordable for all of us. Didn't we all learn that breakfast was the most important meal of the day?)The fact is, Generation P is also Generation E -- for Exploited. Tammy Faye wanted to use my earning habits to help justify lowering the CPI. Madison Avenue uses my generation's likeness to sell products that we can't even afford. My pierced nose (sorry, Mom and Dad) and thrift store duds can sell that computer, but God forbid the salesperson actually looks -- or thinks -- like me.My time -- as well as the time of my peers -- isn't spent slumming or discussing '70s TV. It's spent planning, plotting and scheming with the rest of my talented, hardworking cronies about making the system suit all of us who can't afford Froot Loops.As a 23-year-old female, though, I don't count much with the government. I vote, I participate, but it's frustrating to have such a quiet voice. Being a number in this survey wasn't my idea of a productive, loud voice, a voice that would be recognized and listened to. My comrades and I project our voices through our self-published writing in fanzines, or through our music. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think the bigwigs down in D.C. listen to our bands or read our magazines.I didn't think that my anger over these issues would translate well on Tammy's forms for Washington. As it turned out, though, resistance was futile. Tammy Faye's assaults were relentless. My roommates and I eventually gave in to the inevitable.With our nemesis scheduled to arrive at 9 p.m., we had to prepare. I got busy creating horrible collages of O.J. Simpson and young half-naked models from Details magazine, pieces of the Bible pamphlets I'd been handed on some street corner and creepy crayola drawings I'd made in fits of depression. I changed the light bulb in the hallway to the orange Halloween shade that made my Eraserhead poster look really scary.Housemate Number One pulled out all the erotic art books she could find; she planned to be reading them when Tammy Faye arrived. Housemate Number Two decided that we should watch some crazy Japanimated gay porn for light entertainment. (I quickly nixed that one -- but only because I knew Raising Arizona was on.)We turned off the lights, lit the candles, and waited. Tammy Faye arrived more than half an hour early, brandishing many intimidating forms and books as well as a sequined blazer and tinted glasses. She promptly plopped down in my favorite chair, and went to town.What did we spend on office equipment? Um, nothing. Did we have our receipts saved for the past three months? Um, was she insane? What did we spend on pet food, our food, repairs for the car, gas for the car, travel, trousers, underwear, outerwear, pets, parents, rent?Tammy Faye said the interview would take half an hour -- it took an hour and a half. And in all that time, after all our backbreaking hard work, she didn't notice a damn thing. Not the posters, not the weird lighting, not even the sex books. Like her bosses down in D.C. who don't seem to notice that these economic boom times aren't booming for everyone, Tammy Faye saw what she wanted to see and learned what she wanted to learn.So my roommates and I just ordered a pizza, shot a few knowing glances back and forth across the room and answered every last one of her questions. I'm proud to say that I answered most of them with my mouth full. Screw maturity, I was out for revenge.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.