by Matthew Desmond

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Chapter 18

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Lobster on Food Stamps

Larraine visits the Marcia P. Coggs Human Services Center to try and have her food stamps reinstated. She walks past the long line of people waiting outside. The governor had recently declared that households who were adversely affected by storms throughout the state—including Milwaukee County—will receive food vouchers. Some people had tried taking a door off its hinges to get inside the building.

The woman helping Larraine reschedules her appointment and gives her a referral to the food pantry, where she picks up two bags full of nonperishable food items that she hates. Her food stamps are reinstated, though, even without all of the required paperwork that is locked up in Eagle’s storage warehouse.

After leaving the welfare building, Larraine stops by a furniture store and considers putting a sixty-two-inch television on layaway. Layaway is a form of saving for Larraine, who quickly learned that her SSI benefits would be reduced if the balance in her bank account grew too much.

Beaker never understood why Larraine wants nice things, especially when she faces homelessness. He asked her why she would not sell her jewelry to pay Tobin when she was facing eviction, but she refused. She is not experiencing temporary hardship, and selling her jewelry will not prevent her from being “poor and rent-strapped” for the rest of her life. She says that “we [the poor] deserve, too, something brand-new.”

When Larraine receives her monthly $80 in food stamps, she buys two lobster tails, king crab legs, shrimp, salad, and lemon meringue pie. She eats it alone in Beaker’s trailer, enjoying every bite. Though she must now spend the rest of the month eating pantry food, she does not regret her feast. It's her and Glen’s anniversary.

Larraine’s family has long been frustrated and confused by her spending habits. Pastor Daryl believes that she suffers from a “poverty mentality.” To outsiders, Larraine’s poverty is the result of wasting money. In reality, she wastes money because she lives in poverty.

  • Like Larraine, many individuals for whom the distance between abject poverty and even “stable” poverty often choose not to save their money. No amount of prudence will lift them from their current circumstances, so they often choose to enjoy what little money they do have.

August arrives and the utility company turns off the gas to Beaker’s trailer. Larraine and Jayme, who is out of prison and living with her mother and Beaker, are surprised. Beaker owes $2,748.60. Jayme admonishes Larraine and Beaker for living above their means. As winter approaches, the cold begins to make life even more difficult. The walls of Beaker’s trailer are thin, and Larraine’s winter clothing is still in storage.

One day, Beaker abruptly announces that he is moving to an assisted living facility. Larraine is ordered to leave because, unbeknownst to her, Beaker owes $1,000 in back rent. She pleads with Bieck Management, but they will not let her stay unless she can pay his bill. She tries to convince Beaker to pay off his debt, but he says that he cannot afford to pay two rents. Larraine cannot pay because she already paid for storage.

Larraine tries to find a new place to live near her church, which is “the centerpiece of her life.” She also visits the housing projects where she grew up, in South Milwaukee. There are no vacancies, but the woman in the office directs her to Milwaukee’s branch of Housing and Urban Development. Finding public housing that is not restricted to the elderly or people living with physical disabilities is difficult, but Larraine finds two addresses to apply to.

By the time she must leave Beaker’s trailer, Larraine still has nowhere to go and her public housing applications are still being processed. She asks Ms. Betty, an older woman living alone in the park, if she can live with her. Betty says yes, stipulating that Larraine must leave after winter and pay $100 per month. With that, Larraine moves into Betty’s cluttered trailer.

Larraine finds out that her applications to public housing were rejected. The first reason listed is that she has a history of evictions. The second reason is that she owes property taxes. Larraine laughs, wondering aloud how she could possibly owe property taxes. Betty urges her to appeal, but Larraine says that she is too tired to go through the ordeal and that she does not want to be rejected again. Betty understands.

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Chapter 17


Chapter 19