Minimalism, the theme of our Spring 2015 issue, can be a lifestyle, an aesthetic or a philosophy. Sometimes, though, it’s not a choice. To examine the other side of minimalism—that choosing to live with less is, in fact, a privilege—we had conversations with two writers whose work is informed by an understanding of poverty. In Part One, we spoke to Jana Kasperkevic, a former financial journalist for the Guardian U.S., about her Coney Island adolescence, her decision to pursue stories of economic hardship and why we never talk about money.
Jana Kasperkevic and her family came to Brooklyn from Slovakia in 2000. It was four days after her thirteenth birthday—and it also happened to be Friday the 13th. In her case, she says, superstition proved wrong. Despite the difficulties that came with uprooting her life and rebuilding it on unfamiliar territory (while in middle school), the move ended up being an auspicious one.
Kasperkevic’s family moved to Coney Island, eventually settling into an apartment on West 8th and Surf across the street from the Cyclone. As she lay in bed at night, the screams of thrillseekers riding the old wooden coaster echoed in her room. She notes that Coney Island is not only more diverse than people tend to think, housing Indian and South Asian communities as well as Russian and Eastern European ones, but that it’s also the second poorest neighborhood in Brooklyn after Brownsville. She remembers classmates who lived in the projects located just west of the main drag. The presence of poverty in Coney Island is “something that a lot of people forget when they go there in the summer,” she says. “I always used to joke that Coney Island is where childhood goes to die in the winter.”
Writing previously about personal finance, business and politics for newspapers and publications like Hearst, Business Insider and Inc., Kasperkevic now focuses on personal stories of economic hardship and inequality that inform the greater economic trends she covers. Today’s readers are particularly interested in stories of people who struggle the same ways they do, she says. “No one likes to think that they are out there alone.”
AWT: Do you think your childhood informed your work in journalism?
Jana Kasperkevic: Definitely. Growing up in Coney Island you see a lot of different types of people. There are those who live in the Trump buildings and the co-ops, and after a while they rent those co-ops and move to Staten Island where they have a bigger house, a yard and a white picket fence. But the co-op buildings are not that far away from the projects; there are homeless people living on the boardwalk when it’s warm. So you definitely see all kinds of life. If you think about it, there are a lot of places around there that also support minimum wage workers. There’s a McDonald’s right around the corner from my house and a Nathan’s—I doubt that the employees are getting paid much higher than minimum wage.
People in Slovakia used to think, “Wow, you’re going to America! It must be so great, there must be so much money!” Sometimes the assumption is that the money grows on trees. That’s basically the American dream, that you should work really hard and then you’re going to get a great job, you’re going to get great pay and then you’re going to buy that co-op and move some place like Staten Island or upstate New York. But that doesn’t always happen, and it’s gotten to be harder and harder to do. My parents did not come from a rich background. When we moved here, a family of six, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment for about six months or seven months. You have to sacrifice your privacy. One bathroom for six people is a lot.
When I had to put myself through college, I was working in a restaurant and meeting all these guys who were working in the kitchen, and I thought, “These are the guys who live in my neighborhood.” Working in a restaurant or having a low-paying job like a hostess or a waitress or a busboy definitely informs your view of the world.
AWT: I think money is so integral to the structure of our society.
Jana Kasperkevic: To everything.
AWT: It’s unavoidable. And yet there’s so little education about it when we’re growing up and even when we’re in college. It’s not something people talk about and really try to teach or understand in a big picture kind of way, and that’s why I think there are so many gaps.
Jana Kasperkevic: Right. There have been movements in certain states and in certain cities to try to include that in education, but it’s not widespread enough. Also, your parents might have a completely different approach to money than my parents might, and someone else’s parents might have a third or fourth or fifth approach. A lot of things we’ve heard from some readers was that they wish their parents had helped them budget or taught them about credit card debt. Interestingly enough, a lot of them wished that they had gotten better advice when picking colleges. That’s something that high schools as well as colleges and financial aid offices can be better at. It’s great to say, “Yes, I want to go to this prestigious school, and it’s only going to cost me $10,000 in loans a year.” But then at the end of your four years, $40,000 in debt looks much different than $10,000 each year, right? It adds up.
AWT: I also think that in our generation there tends to be a glamorization of poverty. I don’t think that’s the intention, but to a lot of young people who are struggling to find jobs or pay off their debt, it’s like, let’s make the most if it, let’s live la vie boheme.
Jana Kasperkevic: Sure, there’s this romantic notion about living in a shoebox apartment or sharing an apartment with five friends and struggling to find jobs and living off internships. We could blame it on “Girls,” but this kind of glamorization has been there before. One of the things it comes from is this romantic notion of the struggling artist. It comes back to stereotypes based on a TV show or a book or just a very small group of people. I don’t think that everyone who is between 18 and 34, which is usually the bracket that we define as millennials, wants to be an artist and wants to starve and then write a great novel about their struggles. Some people just want to have a job that pays and then come home at the end of the night and not worry about paying the bills.
AWT: And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Jana Kasperkevic: There’s definitely nothing wrong with that. There’s also nothing wrong with wanting to make money, and sometimes we demonize that. We shouldn’t judge people for wanting to be able to make ends meet. I think what we should be skeptical of is when people want to make money off of other people, or take advantage of the poor, or game the system. That’s something we should be skeptical of. Everyone deserves a living wage, and a lot of these young people can’t find a job with a living wage.
AWT: I think that there’s a binary that exists between minimalism and materialism, as if you have to choose one or the other. I feel like there has to be an in-between. When do you know that you have enough? When do you stop reaching for more?
Jana Kasperkevic: It’s really hard because all of this is relative. What is enough is totally different from person to person. It might depend on your upbringing, it might depend on your aspirations, it also might depend on your job.
And it really comes down to your standards of living. Sometimes you’re forced to make do. There was a semester where I literally was living off of bagels and oatmeal, and I refused to spend money on fancy dinners. But then there was another semester where I was working as a manager at a bar and I was making an OK paycheck, so an expensive dinner every three or four weeks didn’t seem like such a splurge. So should we deny ourselves some pleasures of life just because we’re afraid that somebody else might judge us based on that? That’s very unfair.
There is a culture of passing judgment on everything a person does. Maybe it comes from oversharing. Maybe it comes from the fact that we Instagram so much; every fancy meal has to be captured on camera. Or that we Tweet so much. It becomes easier to overshare, and it becomes easier for others to pass a quick judgment on that. The simple pleasures or the simple things we used to take joy in before are no longer simple because they are then being scrutinized by other people.
AWT: Right. It’s sort of like everything we do is not just the act in itself, it’s the act times however many shares it gets. I think as far as passing judgment, too, for women there is definitely more of a stigma for wanting more, for being ambitious in your career goals or in your earnings goals. What did your parents think of you going into journalism?
Jana Kasperkevic: My dad wanted me to do something that would pay. But, you know, I tried managing a bar, I did payroll there. I loved it to the extent that I got to talk to people. I think that’s one thing I really miss about working in a bar or a restaurant is meeting all of these people day in and day out, learning their stories and being able to make someone’s evening or lunch special or even better if you can. It paid more than journalism does, but there came a point where I wasn’t necessarily happy with that work, and I wasn’t feeling fulfilled. So I took the pay cut, went back to school and I finished my journalism degree. Then I did a lot of internships.
AWT: Were money and finance and business always topics that interested you?
Jana Kasperkevic: I have always been fascinated by money, but what really fascinated me was how it affects people’s life choices and their relationships. It can really ruin relationships, but it can also make some relationships. Money definitely makes life easier. As sad as that is, it’s very true.
AWT: It is true. I really loved your work in The Guardian’s “Money and Feminism” series and the work you’ve done on domestic violence and relationship violence, bringing in economic abuse as well as physical and emotional abuse. Money is so much about control and autonomy—the control you have as a person, and the control that someone can exert over you.
Jana Kasperkevic: I am very lucky to have a great editor, Heidi Moore, and she is particularly interested in the topic of feminism and finance. What really interested me was the economic abuse, because we see it so often. When a man is limiting your access to money, you can’t see it the way you can see bruises or physical abuse. It’s a form of mental abuse and taking away control. It’s very sad and it’s upsetting. It’s something that happens way more than we’re willing to admit. And it’s something that also happens to men. It determines who the power person is in a relationship.
You might not realize it, but money comes into every relationship you have. Your parents either pay for your school or they don’t. When your parents are old, you might have to take care of them. If you are growing up in a poor family and you don’t have the cool clothes, that can totally change the way you interacted in high school and junior high. It becomes sad that all of this, just the way that we exist, even as children, is so based on our financial circumstances.
It’s something we should be more open about, but money is a taboo subject in the U.S. to begin with. When you complain that you don’t have money, people call you a whiner or a complainer. Millennials are often referred to as whiney, and one fifth of them live in poverty. Maybe if we were more open about our financial situations and how difficult things sometimes are, maybe people would pay more attention.
AWT: What is the biggest misconception about money and poverty you’ve encountered in your work as a journalist?
Jana Kasperkevic: The biggest misconception is that poor people must be lazy, that they’re somehow to blame for the fact that they are poor. That stereotype unfortunately still exists. And the second thing comes back to your topic, minimalism. Some people say, “You’re poor because you wanted to go and get this expensive education. You’re poor because you wanted this big house you couldn’t afford mortgage payments on. Maybe you wouldn’t be so poor if you didn’t have a car.” They presume that people are poor because they’ve spent money on expensive rent. “Your rent is over a thousand dollars in New York. Why don’t you move somewhere where rent is cheaper?” But moving takes money. Some people end up being stuck in these expensive cities because they can’t move anywhere else. And also, why should I, who grew up in the city, move just because it has gotten so expensive? You don’t want to leave your home. What if this is all you have known?
AWT: I loved the story you published recently where you asked readers to define their own class. Those stories were very moving to me.
Jana Kasperkevic: Don’t dismiss your reader. That’s something that’s very important. Always think about who you’re writing for. One of the things I always ask is, “Is there something I’m missing? What are these people seeing that maybe I’m not seeing?” Especially because I, as a financial journalist, might not experience all of these things that I’m writing about. You might have a beat, but don’t ever become so sure of yourself that maybe you forget that these are people you’re writing about. Just because you’ve heard so many stories about people struggling to make ends meet or people struggling to live on minimum wage, you cannot dismiss them as sob stories. Every story has its own worth.