After the governor of Wisconsin announces that families affected by storms and flooding would be given food vouchers, there is a crowd of thousands outside the welfare building. Larraine spends a whole day waiting before her number is called. She explains that she missed her welfare appointment because she was evicted, and the woman replies that she should have rescheduled. Yet Larraine has never been able to successfully reschedule an appointment; when she calls the welfare services line, it is always busy. She is referred to the food bank where she reluctantly accepts some canned food.
Like Arleen, Larraine faces a series of difficult and in many ways false choices. It is theoretically both her decision and her responsibility to show up for her welfare appointments. Yet as she attempts to explain, eviction along with the overcrowding of welfare resources mean that it is essentially impossible for Arleen to make her appointments.
Larraine goes straight from her appointment to a furniture store where she admiringly inspects a flat screen TV. She considers putting it on layaway, which she considers a wise financial decision because having too much money in her bank account at one time jeopardizes her SSI (which leaves her with no incentive to save money). Larraine does not believe she will ever be able to pull herself out of poverty. With this in mind, she is happy to spend money on occasional lavish purchases. She knows that she deserves occasional treats even if she is poor.
Larraine’s belief that she will likely never live above the poverty line might seem pessimistic. Yet the SSI policy shows how impoverished people can become trapped in poverty not only by problems such as eviction, medical costs, and unemployment, but also by policies that perversely discourage saving money.
Larraine ultimately does not put the TV on layaway; instead, she spends all her food stamps on lobster tails, shrimp, king crab legs, salad, and lemon meringue pie. She eats this meal alone, celebrating her and Glen’s anniversary. This kind of behavior frustrates her friends and relatives, who see it as irresponsible. They believe Larraine’s “poverty mindset” compels her to make financially irresponsible decisions and remain poor. However, in reality it is Larraine’s poverty itself that compels her to make irresponsible decisions. She has so little money that it is basically impossible for her to make responsible or prudent decisions.
Larraine’s family and friends’ belief that she is responsible for her ongoing poverty does not necessarily come from a bad place—indeed, it probably emerges from a hope that Larraine’s suffering will end. At the same time, it is an example of the way in which poor people are blamed for their own poverty when in reality it is simply out of their control.
Living in “grinding poverty” (rather than “stable poverty”) as Larraine does means that there is essentially no chance she will ever be able to improve her own circumstances. There is no point in saving, so Larraine doesn’t. Instead, she decides to secure small moments of pleasure wherever she can, even if this means the rest of the time she survives on canned food or skips meals. She asserts that she has “a right to live like I want to live.” The next month, she uses some of her food stamps to buy groceries for a poor family who’ve moved in next to Beaker’s trailer. Two days later, she receives a notice that her gas is being cut off.
Larraine’s refusal to accept the stigma of poverty is admirable. It shows that she has a keener insight to the economic system in which she lives than many other people—or at least that she has the courage to be more honest about it. Meanwhile, her statement that she has the “right to live like I want to live” is a profound assertion of her dignity in the face of a world that seeks to deny it.
Larraine’s daughter Jayme comments that both Larraine and Beaker need to grow up and learn to live within their means. That winter, Larraine and Beaker sleep in their winter clothes, piled under blankets. Then, one day, Beaker says he is moving into an assisted living facility. Larraine tries to persuade Beaker to pay his outstanding rent so she can stay in the trailer. He says he can’t, and Larraine is given six days to leave. Larraine goes looking for a new place to stay. She knows that public housing usually only goes to the elderly and physically disabled, and even then accommodates only a fraction of this population.
Jayme’s belief that her mother and uncle need to learn to live within their means is a strange contrast to the image of the brother and sister surviving a Wisconsin winter without heat. Clearly the problem is not that Larraine is incapable of living within her means, but rather than there is no opportunity for her to change her means. As it stands, desperately attempting to survive is her only option.
The elderly are prioritized in this way because politicians have learned this is a more popular policy than pushing public housing for all. When the day of her eviction comes, Larraine still doesn’t have anywhere to go. She knocks on the door of Ms. Betty, a woman who she barely knows yet who allows Larraine to stay in her trailer until after the winter is over. Larraine agrees to pay her $100 a month. While there, she is turned down for public housing because of her eviction record and because she apparently owes property taxes. Ms. Betty suggests she appeals this obviously false claim, but Larraine says she can’t bear being rejected again.
Just as Larraine extends kindness and generosity to the family who move into the trailer next to Beaker’s, so too does she receive generosity from Ms. Betty when she has nowhere else to turn. While the kindness that impoverished people extend to one another is moving, it is also heartbreaking. Ultimately, neither Larraine or Ms. Betty will be able to help others in the way they really want to because they have so little themselves.