Today, an unfortunate incident reminded me exactly how fortunate I am.
Last night, as I was washing the dishes, the water just stopped. The stream coming out of the faucet completely dried up. I stared at it for a second, expecting it to come back on. After a few moments of blinking, I sighed. First, down to the basement to see if we sprung a leak somewhere. Nope, no water in the basement, thank goodness. Then to look around the house – maybe there was a water main break nearby. Nothing visible. No panicking yet. Next step, call the water supplier to see if there’s a break elsewhere. After a bit of faffing about trying to figure out who provides our water service, I finally called the town. My voice rising just a little bit, I explained the situation to the person at the desk. She said she’d transfer me. So I waited…and waited…and finally called back after being on hold for several minutes. Calling back, I unsurprisingly received the same person. After a few more minutes on pins and needles, she reported back. “Your water has been cut off for non-payment.” “What?!” I said, baffled as to how such a thing was possible.
Knowing I receive e-bills, I realized that she was in fact correct. After much searching, I pulled up an email from October that had: “Utility Statement 1-800-682-0200” as the topic, no body text at all, and a PDF attachment.
I may have thought it was spam of some sort with an attachment and no text in the body. Or I might have opened it and promptly forgot about it. Either way, that was the very last thing they had sent us. No late notice. No warning that they might be forced to cut off our water. Nothing at all.
Being as it was too late to argue and the woman on the other end of the line could do nothing about it anyway, I thanked her and hung up. I then promptly went online and paid the bill, including the extra $50 reconnection fee. Shortly after that, I emailed my bosses at work and asked if I could work from home because of a “problem with our water.” I knew the water would be turned on the “next business day,” but it definitely wasn’t going to be on before I had to go to work. And I look awful in the morning without a shower – definitely not professional. If I couldn’t work from home, I was going to take a personal day.
So we come to this morning. I started working at 8:30 AM, feeling hideously gross. Still not knowing what time they might turn the water on, Chris bought a couple of jugs from the convenience store at 9:00 AM so that we could flush our toilet. Finally, getting impatient, I called the town again at 10 AM. Less than an hour later, the water was back on.
Despite the town’s incompetence of not sending us a warning, there is still no doubt that we were clearly at fault. I made a dumb mistake. But the fact is that being middle class, we could easily recover from such a mistake. This incident was an absurd inconvenience for us. But for someone living barely on the edge of financial stability, it could be disastrous.
First, the person might not have been able to pay the bill right away. Many people don’t have $200 just sitting around in their bank account. As a result, she would either have to go into debt further, forgo another necessity (like food) for several days, or live in third world conditions without running water for an untold period of time. Second, the person probably would not be able to call into work like I did. If she has an office job where she had to look professional (especially if she is the “face” of an organization like a receptionist), she could be fired, especially if the water was off for more than a few days. She could run into a similar circumstance if the position involved handling food, where sanitary conditions are a necessity. Third, her credit could be put at risk. Not paying bills, even if it’s just one time, can potentially have an impact on your credit score. Ours is strong, but if it was already on the edge, a slip-up like this could prevent someone from ever getting a loan. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the person might have children who need to be bathed and have their teeth brushed. If the children go to school without these things and report they have no running water, the parents can be investigated by Social Services. Social Services might be able to provide support to turn running water back on, but they might also be forced to temporarily remove the children if conditions are unsanitary. And they might not even be able to help. Most states have laws that prevent the utility from turning off the heat in winter, but as far as I can tell, Maryland has nothing on the books about water.
This is why I believe the growing gap between rich and poor is so problematic and why everyone has to keep speaking up about it. This is why I believe the conversation raised by the Occupy movement is important. Everyone makes dumb mistakes sometimes – no one is perfect. Telling people that they have to be perfect to barely keep their head above water is a tremendous double standard. (Much like implying it’s okay that only the “best and the brightest” children get out of poverty. Example number one is the “If I Was a Poor Black Kid” article on Forbes, which no longer seems to be posted.)
And even if you do everything right, life itself can screw you over. Someone can rear-end your car. You can trip on an icy sidewalk on the way to work. A strong wind storm can tear tiles off of your roof. If you don’t have health insurance or a few extra dollars in the bank, complete accidents can be disastrous. (Try “winning” Spent, a game based on real-life situations. It’s incredibly difficult. Similarly, John Scalzi’s “Being Poor” shows the many, many ways that bad luck can affect people.)
So that’s why it’s awful to be poor in America. The people who are poor know this already – it’s the people who aren’t poor and think “people are just lazy” who need to hear it. The fact is that everyone deserves second chances and many people don’t even get first ones.