Living in the Age of Uncertainty, One Aisle at a Time by Hoang Samuelson
Essays for a Guaranteed Income
This week, I am publishing a series of essays on Guaranteed Income and the ways it would change five people’s lives. Today, an essay from Hoang Samuelson, edited by Meg Pillow.
Hoang Samuelson is an aspiring writer and editor based in Portland, OR who writes essays and short stories on identity, culture, books and relationships. You can find out more about her at hoangsamuelson.com
On a hot Saturday afternoon in late July, I took my mother out on an errand run. Every once in a while, she likes to go to Walmart, so that’s where we found ourselves, in a place where we could escape the heat and get everything we needed for the home, all in one stop. We basked in the glory of the air conditioner, the throngs of people milling about—this time, it seemed busier than usual, but then again, it’s always busy at Walmart, pandemic or not.
Truth be told, I am not a fan of the store and its long lines and employees who always seem present but never helpful, but that’s just me. My mother, on the other hand, is a big fan. She used to shop there religiously and exclusively, like a lot of Asian parents do in our city. Walmart is an empire of deals and low prices that are unbeatable, a compendium of everything you need.
I admit my distaste for Walmart has nothing to do with the store or the company itself but with what it represents. You see, Walmart is a store where I spent many afternoons as an adolescent shopping with my parents. We arrived in Oregon from Vietnam in 1995, sponsored by my uncle on my mother’s side—a family of four with meager beginnings. My parents, however, were not the highly educated kind of Asians. My father was a starving artist (he wrote poetry and short stories but never really “made it” as a writer), and my mother was the breadwinner, selling foods on the street to make ends meet. My father finished high school but my mother never even got there. They were married when my mom was seventeen and my dad twenty-four. Since then, they’ve had to rely on the generosity of others and my mother’s intense work ethic.
We were lucky, but we weren’t at the same time. The story goes that my uncle started the process of sponsoring our family back when my mom was still pregnant with me in 1984 but it wasn’t until a decade later that they got the green light. So we arrived in May 1995 with hope. Over time, our few belongings grew as my parents got jobs in food assembly and other hard labor roles. They learned to save and spend, and with such limited income and education, they had to figure out a way to feed and clothe my brother and me. Thus, Walmart became the place.
On this particular afternoon in July, my mom is excited. She picks up an apple and puts it to her nose, then deems it sweet-smelling—and only 88 cents per pound!—so she decides to put a few in a bag. Then she moves onto the bananas—she eats organic now—only be thwarted by the fact that the store does not offer the option. She grunts in despair and moves onto the grapes. She decides that the grapes are a good deal; she takes a bag and puts it in her cart. We move onto the vegetables.
Twenty minutes later, we are standing at the checkout line. It will be another twenty minutes before we get to the front. My kids are getting antsy and hungry. They need lunch now. We rush out of the store quickly. I drive away thinking about why my mom eats organic but likes to shop at a place that doesn’t offer many of those options.
My mom hasn’t always been this way. She never cared much for healthy foods when I was growing up, let alone cholesterol, salt content, or fat. It wasn’t until she was diagnosed with high cholesterol and began taking medication for it that she also began to slow down on those high cholesterol foods. Then, when she was diagnosed with cancer, she began to take a more proactive approach to eating. Suddenly, she became selective about the salt and fat contents. She started eating organic fruits. She still hesitates to buy organic vegetables, but in general, she is more aware of what’s good for her and what’s not.
No, my mom likes to shop at Walmart because they always offer low prices—always. They’ve never failed her. The aisles are attractive, colorful, and the big price tags easy to understand. Whether by choice or by necessity, my mom, along with many other moms, has chosen Walmart as the place to hunt for a bargain. It’s a place where someone could use their hard-earned but limited money, a place that provides a woman with limited education the chance to build a life and not be saddled with debt while trying to raise her family.
Walmart is the kind of place that a woman like my mother goes to because they do not have the same privileges as other people. While I have many more working years in my lifetime, my mom does not. She’s retired now and has been for the past seven years. Her income is limited to social security, which provides her roughly $500 per month, and a pension that provides approximately $90 per month. That, along with some savings she’s accumulated over the years, plus an incredible amount of patience and self-control, has helped my mom manage to live on just under $9000 per year.
This is not the kind of reality that I want for her, or for anybody. It’s the kind of reality that I try very hard to ensure doesn’t happen to me. Of course, many of those factors are out of her control, like the lack of education, for example. In my lifetime, I’ve been the recipient of many more privileges than my parents. I got the chance to come to America early in life, to learn English, to go to college, to get married to the person I love, to have children when I wanted to, and to buy a house. These are the dreams that are often overlooked by many as something to be expected and not earned.
My mom loves the fact that I bought a house. It’s beautiful and spacious, a step up from our 600 square foot apartment. But we both gloss over the fact that she helped me buy it. Her money, along with the timing of my job, enabled my husband and I to buy our first home in 2019. Unfortunately, the pandemic eviscerated all of that. My income has dwindled dramatically while my husband’s income increased only slightly. Together, we do not make enough money to be able to afford this house. Somehow, we’ve managed through a variety of sources—the CARES Act, stimulus money, unemployment, and now the child tax credit.
But my struggle is miniscule in comparison to my mother’s. Having a universal basic income program (or guaranteed income) would open up new opportunities for people like her, retirees living on limited income who have spent their entire lives limited by constraints. They wouldn’t have to worry about prices; they could choose where to shop based on what they need and want rather than what’s more economically feasible. They could use that money to donate to their church, to help people in their community, to afford a better place to live, or to save for their children or grandchildren’s college education.
Having universal basic income is by no means a solution to all problems, but I believe that it can help people lessen their anxiety and worry about the future. It can also help people like me to reallocate our time and effort towards starting our own business and striving for our dreams, or at least be able to “afford” a home. It can help people evaluate job offers with a keener eye, less on the money and more on their long-term goals.
As for my mom, she continues to marvel at Walmart’s prices; often, she asks me to take her to the Dollar Store so she can buy that $1 boxed Cup Noodles, the $1 coffee mug or $1 plate. Her apartment is filled with mismatched dollar items that she purchased there as well as at other thrift stores. And when I tell her that her plates and cups should match, she dismisses my words as if they are frivolous thoughts, only available to those who can afford it. After all, she says, “I only have so much money.”