09/10/2013 09:47 am ET Updated Nov 10, 2013

Money for Manicures But Not for Rent

A recent article in a major newspaper told of a woman's move from a homeless shelter to her own apartment. In describing her accompanying "transformation," the article mentioned that the woman "stopped getting manicures."

"Stopped?" thought I. "Ummmm...[socially acceptable version of 'WTF']?"

The paper's three words -- stopped getting manicures -- made for an interesting lunch discussion among several of us working in social services. Around the table were Linda, Bethesda Cares' office manager; Sue, our Executive Director; "Stacy," a social worker from a nearby organization; and yours truly.

I tossed out the first salvo: "Anyone see the piece in the Post this morning? I couldn't believe the woman who got housing, and then decided to stop having her nails done. I've seen this before. Women with basically no income have these incredible manicures. I don't get it," I shook my head. "If it were me, I'd use those 30 bucks for, like, food. Or if I had food, if the money is somehow extra, I'd save it."

Stacy, a social worker for 12 years, said that was naive. "Most of my clients just have no idea about saving, about budgeting. It's not that they think of sticking money away and reject the idea, it's that 'savings' isn't even part of their lexicons."

Sue chimed in: "Oh, agreed. Listen, a lot of clients don't 'get' that the money they are spending today could change their lives tomorrow. I've seen clients with nothing who come into some cash, and just check themselves into a motel until the money runs out, like, three days later," she says.

She turned to me: "And don't be so sure everyone pays $30 for a manicure, Amy," Sue continued. "There is a tremendous shadow-economy out there, all barter. The Post woman paid, but another could easily swap doing someone's hair, or whatever, for the mani," she said.

"Maybe," I allowed, not buying it. "Maybe."

"That savings thing," Stacy said. "Society's failing. Isn't it our job -- not just us, but the whole social service safety net -- to really educate everyone on managing money?" she asked.

Linda, silent thus far, spoke up. "Hey. If I had no money, if my life was crap, and all of a sudden I landed a few bucks, I sure as heck might blow it on something that made me feel good. I mean, that 30 bucks isn't going to get me into an apartment, but maybe the manicure'll make me feel human for a few minutes, you know? Why don't 'poor people' deserve that?"

Looking around at our expressions -- she hit a chord there -- she continued: "Overspending isn't owned by any economic class. Look at the housing crisis. Look at all the middle-class people who bought houses they couldn't pay for, cars they couldn't afford. Why are people with less money any less likely to overspend? And why do people with money get so sanctimonious when those with less make the same mistakes?"

"Come on," I said. "Because of life's necessities. Food, shelter, clothing. Not manicures."

Linda shook her head. "No, you're missing the point. They are already living without steady access to basic necessities. We're talking about a little self-esteem." Sue picked up the thread: "Look, a lot of our clients cannot stand looking at the weeks and months ahead. So they focus on what is in front of them. And sometimes, what is in front of them might be a reach for a luxury they really cannot rationally afford."

"But they might reach for it anyway." Sue shrugged the shrug of a woman in this field for more than a quarter-century, who has pretty much seen it all. "And remember, this Post woman started making more sound financial choices once she was in housing, once she felt like her $30 was worth saving. Once she believed she has a future, not just her present."

"Okay. Frankly, people experiencing homelessness should be demanding housing. But you're not talking about an organized group well known for its advocacy skills," Stacy said. "So that is where organizations like ours must step in."

Sue nodded. "Manicures are about handling money, yes. But nothing is going to give a person real, permanent 'self-esteem' more than a flippin' home. Look at the woman in the article. She gets a home, the need for a 'self-esteem band-aid' is gone."

"That said, we're talking here about coping with very human emotions, too. Our job is to help, not to judge," she concluded.
And with that, we all got back to work. Actually, I got back to work after tracking down another quotation from George Orwell:

It is curious how people take it for granted that they have a right to preach at you and pray over you as soon as your income falls below a certain level.

Down and Out in Paris and London

I guess I'm clear that "self-esteem" belongs on our list of life's basic necessities. I am also clear that it has to be the big, permanent boost from housing, not the temporary ping from a manicure. I guess where I'm not as clear is how I might behave, were I in less fortunate shoes.