Overcoming Bag Lady Syndrome Fears During A Recession

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I saw a report on CNN that disturbed me and left me thinking for days after. The report was on middle-class women who had been forced into homelessness in part because of the current economic difficulties. And though it is entirely irrational, fear kicked in and I saw myself in the women shown living in their cars.

The women profiled live in Santa Barbara which is a ridiculously expensive place to live even by high-cost California standards. According to figures quoted in the piece, the median price of a house in Santa Barbara is over $1 million and the average cost of a studio apartment is over $1,600 a month. Barbara Harvey was a loan processor which is a job that was undoubtedly lost in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis. She now lives on her earnings from an $8 an hour part-time job and social security payments. She and her two dogs live in her car which she keeps in one of the parking lots the city of Santa Barbara has designated for overnight use by the homeless even though it is illegal to sleep in a car. Barbara's lot is one just for the use of homeless women.

I was struck by how well put together the women in the piece were. One woman dropped her voice a few octaves when answering the question of what was most difficult about homelessness and answering "hygiene." Nevertheless, these women were all composed, dignified, clean and well dressed. They looked like ordinary middle-class women who could have emerged from their home not a long night in a car with no indoor plumbing. In other words, they looked like me. I could be one of them.

And this is when the fear kicked in. I am enormously fortunate that I am not impoverished and am well aware that there are millions of women in this country who have tremendous economic difficulties I do not face. And I do not mean to trivialize the issue of poverty with my whiny fears. But many middle-class women share my fears and I think they are worth examining.

One might question why the women in the CNN piece don't simply leave Santa Barbara and move to a part of the country with a lower cost of living. But their lives and families are there. It is not so simple and family and charitable safety nets are not always enough. It is increasingly clear that much of the onus for our financial security is squarely and solely on us. Leaving aside discussions and arguments about the morality of this position and the appropriate roles of employers, government and society, this reality is a driving source of our fears.

Many American women worry about becoming a "bag lady." In other words, homeless and lacking in financial resources. This leads many women to overwork themselves out of a notion that if they just work hard enough they will not suffer the fate. Or they are timid in negotiating at work out of fear of losing their job, or they invest timidly out of fear of risking their savings for higher returns which will help support them in the future. The crazy fear leads to crazy behavior which is only reinforced when we hear the constant drumbeat of bad economic news repeated in the nightly news. And when it comes up too our doorstep, happens to people who seem to share a life similar to ours, when it is no longer relegated to an "other" in the form of the abstract poor it is hard to resist the feeling of crazy.

And that is my struggle today. I am blessed. I have a roof over my head, I have food in my kitchen, I have money in the bank, I have transferable work skills and most of all I have an extensive network of family support. I will not be homeless. This I know. However, it is increasingly a reality for far too many. But perhaps I need to shut of the TV, continue to focus on keeping my net intact and spend some time and money supporting those women who are truly suffering instead of weaving my nightmare fantasies of impending life as a bag lady.

Related reading:

Michelle Kennedy at Organically Inclined writes in "One Paycheck Away - The Growing Middle Class Homeless Population" shares her story:

It sends me back to the days when I was living in my car with my three little ones. For the last three years, I have been speaking and writing [”Without a Net: Middle Class and Homeless (With Kids) in America”]about homelessness and my concern about the real estate bubble. While I recognize that my own story of homelessness is just that - my story - I have tried to illustrate that such a disaster can happen to anyone…no matter what choices one makes good or bad.

Christy at Christy's Coffee Break notes the many of the comments on the CNN story blame women for being homeless:

I think CNN should do a follow up story based on the heartless comments, I'd love to hear what an expert has to say on the psychology of those who couldn't care less about an elderly woman living in a car.

You can read more on the middle-class homeless in the article, Parking Lots Turn Into Safe Havens For Middle-Class Homeless. You'll also find link there where you can donate.

After reading Bobby's (the author of Revellian.com) article " Interview With a Blind Homeless Man" I was motivated to make a donation to the New Beginnings Counseling Center, and I hope you will too!

Mark Hutcherson at the Hutch Reports discusses the growing impact of the mortgage crisis on middle class women in "Homeless Women A Growing American Problem"

USA Today "New breed of American emerges in need of food":

Philomena Gist understands why it hurts so much to be on food stamps. After all, she's got a master's degree in psychology.

"There's pride in being able to take care of yourself," says the Columbus, Ohio, resident, laid off last year from a mortgage company and living on workers' compensation benefits while recovering from surgery. "I'm not supposed to be in this condition."

Salem-News.com "Mid Valley's Largest Food Bank Sees Surge in Middle Class Emergency"

In the past month, the number of previously middle-class residents seeking emergency assistance from St. Vincent de Paul has spiked remarkably, according to Shari Crawford, who coordinates the non-profit’s emergency services.

St. Vincent de Paul is the largest emergency food bank in the Mid Valley, providing basic staples to about 2500 people a month (600 families). “Lately, we’ve been seeing truck drivers, construction workers, counselors and many others who have lost jobs and been forced to seek assistance because they’ve spent their last dime,” said Crawford.

“It’s scary,” Crawford continued. The upsurge in unemployment coupled with dramatic increases in the cost of living has put these previously secure families “into a tailspin.”

Little Merry Sunshine "Food Pantries Need YOUR Help!"

Food pantries provide a safety net for entire communities. Because of the economic recession, more people are relying on food pantries than the in recent times - including more and more "middle class" people. As a result, food pantries across the country are finding their shelves empty and need your donations. ...

If you don't live in Wheeling Township, I encourage you to call your local food pantry, see what is needed, and then make a donation.

What if we all went through our own pantry and dropped 5 or 10 items off at the local food pantry? Certainly we won't starve by donating a day's worth of food, but it could keep someone else from going to bed hungry.

Augusta Free Press "Food bank needs your help to get through rough patch"

“We’ve entered this perfect storm scenario,” food bank CEO Marty White said. “We’re seeing situations that have never existed in the history of this organization. The demand, the stress on the middle class and the inflation of the economy have created a set of circumstances that makes it very difficult for the working poor to make ends meet. We really need the help now more than ever before.”

Ms. Mini Ducky "Well, hello Bag Lady Syndrome"

That right there? I just tried to mentally justify building up 100k worth of what-if money because I'm paranoid. Where I'd get that extra 85k, Lord only knows, but the point is, I'm falling into that mentality where no amount is ever enough because I'm fueled entirely by emotion. Namely, fear.

It's subsiding now that I've written it down and can see how ridiculous it looks on "paper", but now I understand how easy it is to become Chicken Little and run from imagined terrors. I always wondered how people I consider comparatively or absolutely wealthy could look at what they have and still be afraid that they'll be broke, but I realize that the problem is the mentality of what they don't have, not what they do have.

It's not that any of the above couldn't happen, but a million other things that I couldn't ever foresee could happen, too. I can't live my life under a rock making lists of the things that could go wrong and how much money I'd need for it to be ok again. Silly ducky

Lady D & Mia at Sassy Women Online review Suze Orman's Book "Women and Money" and they note:

Ms. Orman points out that “more than 50 percent” of women suffer from “Bag Lady Syndrome,” a growing fear that one day they will end up homeless and are giving away their services at a discounted rate. The Bag Lady Syndrome includes a list of “uncomfortably familiar” scenarios of women asking for less than they deserve such as: the corporate executive who accepts a 3 percent raise when she deserves at least double that or the professional who bargains her own services for someone else’s services she doesn’t really need because she is afraid of hurting that persons feelings.

Stacey at The Many Layers of the Veil talks about "Poopy Attitudes"

With the overwhelming feeling of work and deadlines, for me, eventually comes a crash. I seem to repeat this process. I seem to go, go, go... get into a groove, sustain, teeter, try to hold my head above water... then sink... drown... I know I spread myself too thin. There is this underlying 'bag lady' syndrome I have. If I don't work my butt off now I will be the bag lady on the street some day. A side effect from the past I know. Not reality. But it's ingrained in me.

Alien Baby at What The Hell Is This? writes about The Inner Bag Lady:

I had been talking with her about my own terror of “falling through the cracks,” of winding up pushing a shopping cart if I dared to leave the secure (if low-paying and dead-end) job that offered me health benefits and a bus pass.

I had been living independently, paying my own rent and eating Ramen, since the age of nineteen, and had struggled on in genteel poverty for years since graduating college. Returning “home” was not an option; I had vowed (even under threat of homelessness) never to come crawling back there like the Prodigal Daughter to relinquish my identity. Feeling burdened by the debt of my student loans, I saw myself as one misfortune away from sleeping in a refrigerator box.

But my counselor was telling me that I had something in common with other single women, regardless of background or circumstances: the inner bag lady.

This observation has since been backed up by a good friend of mine who has worked with a number of unattached women on their career and financial issues. One way or another, this fear surfaces. His own ex-wife, who currently brings in a six-figure income as a company vice-president, went into bag lady panic contemplating her status as a newly divorced woman. What was going to happen to her? How would she take care of herself? Would she wind up shivering on a grate somewhere?

Whence came ye, o inner bag lady?

Carol Chapman at Alpha Women shares Getting Rid of Your Inner Bag Lady: Finding Financial Confidence:

Jennifer has managed to do something that many women haven’t managed to do yet. She’s figured out how to banish the inner bag lady, that nagging, lowly image of poverty and need that lurks in the backs of our minds. Lots of us still feel a shiver of dread as well as sympathy when we see a raggedy woman, grown old before her time, hair askew and threadbare socks bagging around her ankles, trundling her belongings down the street in a battered shopping cart.

“That could be me, but for the grace of God,” we say, superstitiously, no matter how secure we might actually be at the moment. Or we might imagine ourselves having to bus tables or wait on rude twenty-somethings instead of heading for the spa or the resort of our dreams at age 65. In our heart of hearts, we know that we can’t count on the men in our lives, on social security, or on the lottery to take care of us in the future.

So how do we get rid of this worrisome insecurity?

Grace at Graceful Retirement says "Forget the Bag Lady -- I'm Afraid I'll be Lillian"

But what if I didn't? What if I had a stroke tomorrow? It's certainly possible. My father had a heart attack at age 58 and a stroke at age 68. All my mother's maternal aunts as well as her own mother died of strokes in their sixties. Or what if I'm in a car wreck and injured too severely to continue work?

I wish Lillian all the best. But I also wish she didn't scare me quite so much.

Gail Maria at gone pausal may have put her finger on the real issue:

I do know what one man is afraid of. He confided in me that he was afraid of "not being loved". Wow. I was stopped in my tracks. That's quite an admission. It made me think... maybe it's not the bathroom floor or the shopping cart after all, it's "NBL".

Do you struggle with bag lady syndrome? Does the current recession talk make it harder? How do you cope with and push past the fear?

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