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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

What It Truly Means to Be Poor, and How We Get There - Guest Post

I've been following the stories of the woman who wrote a Huffington Post comment about what it means to be poor from afar. I first read an expose of her, and shared it, not having done much research. The expose has holes, and lots of problems of its own, including harsh judgments that are not necessarily truth, but conjecture. The woman's own story touched many hearts, won many dollars, and in turn, when the possibility of it being fake came out, turned many people off in anger. A close friend of mine has written a response to this back-and-forth. At first it looks like a derailment of the original woman, but it is not. Poor is poor (or so they tell me. The closest I got to it was 2008 when I had to go on Medicaid and WIC to feed and get medical care for my infants who were born prematurely right as the economy crashed, we were unable to pay for our now-underwater house, and my husband lost his job. Fewer than two years later, we were back on our feet, thank God, and these days, I do shit like make cookies to Christmas carols. This is not my story, but it is a story of many.)

You’ve read it by now. Everyone has, I think. It’s received national and even international coverage. A woman, who may or may not have struggled monetarily in life at one point, fabricated a heart-wrenching scene of what it’s like to live at and below the poverty level, down to rationalizing how it affected her decisions to eat, sleep, smoke, raise her children, and steer her life. It was poignant and well written, and it touched on a number of good points.
See, there were giveaways in that little essay that niggled at me, though. Things that niggled at a lot of other people, too. The connotation that poverty is always dirty, framed in a way that is recycled from the mouths of those who have really never been inside it, right down to the same language. Then there was the colorful diatribe about the roaches, and their little toothpick stakes, where she impaled them (by hand,) like victims of Vlad the Impaler. I live in the South, folks. If you’ve never been, we have a special brand of demon roach commonly called the Palmetto Bug. They’re big, they fly, and they’re fucking terrifying. More so than anything, they are in ALL HOUSES IN ALL THE PLACES, and they’re FAST. No chance in hell you’re going to sit on your floor with some toothpicks and impale those bitches. They will dart or fly across the room before you have a chance to ready your spear, and then they will laugh at you.

I was hurt when her hoax was brought to light. I was outraged. I felt for her; she was “one of us.” She was trudging through the shit like the rest of us, she was part of this brotherhood of hard knocks and occasional hopelessness. Or at least, she led us believe she was. But instead, she was privileged more than most, with a wealthy family, a boarding school early education, and a career in politics that started at a young age. She defended herself by saying that her essay was misunderstood, that those reading it saw what they wanted or needed to see, that they were obtuse. And she defended the outpouring of support that she soaked up, both monetary and emotionally, by iterating once more that people chose to act based on how they interpreted it. It was no fault of her own, but she was certainly not going to turn down any “help” anyone wanted to offer.

Well, folks, I want to do you a favor. I want to paint you a real picture of working poverty. I want to show you what poor decisions get made every day and why, and I want you to understand that this time, it’s real. Because I’m NOT doing this for pity, support, or donations, this will remain completely anonymous. The writer is a known blogger and guest blogger, but I choose to keep my identity well hidden, because more than anything, I want to show you what it’s like to live a day in the life. Shit like names and ages and a gender here or there have been altered. Really, I don’t want you to know who I am.

So, how does one end up poor? Or working poor, in my case? Well, I’ll tell you. It started young. I had young parents that struggled to make a life for their kids. For a long time, we bounced from shit hole to shit hole, always just evading eviction, while I pretended to not notice that there were days when dinner was spaghetti with canned sauce for days in a row, pretending not to see the terror and the sadness in our parents’ eyes when they laughed off our requests for trips to theme parks or for ponies or new bikes with the excuses of “That’s an awfully big request, let’s save it for an awfully big occasion.” (I was the oldest by seven and nine years, respectively.) I knew they wanted nothing more to do those things for us. I knew they simply couldn’t. I knew that they didn’t want to work from dawn to dark to try and make ends meet, I knew they’d rather be home with us, but I also knew that as much as they supported us, it was crucial that I support them, too. So I smiled back, and made light of the worries that trickled down my way. They tried desperately to shield me from it, but I was precocious and observant. If nothing else, it helped shield the littles; I could reinforce the ruse so that they, at least, didn’t have to have any inkling of how bad things really were.

At one point, finally, they made it out of the rut. They bought a nice house, upgraded to cars that worked. Took jobs that didn’t have them working themselves to the bone, where they could spend evenings making dinner and doing yard work, going to our extra-curricular activities that they could finally afford. I knew poverty at a young age and for many years, but we had moved beyond that.

So how, then, do you go from being an average, now-upper-middle class family, to a single mother living in that very same house, where you’ve all become working poor in spite of multiple incomes and at least two people with promising, bordering on prestigious careers?

Well, I’ll tell you how. It’s a secret now, so don’t go blasting it around everywhere. Are you ready? Here it is: Shit. Fucking. Happens.

I made it through high school, and due to a self-destructive and rebellious streak, I decided fuck college. I was going to do as many drugs and fuck as many people as I could. I blew through job opportunity after job opportunity, some of which would see me today working in very, very cushy research positions with my education paid for, because I got bored easily and was really convinced I was bullet proof.

I found that even though I bounced back and forth between being on my own and my parents support, I could do okay for myself.

Then came baby.

Alright, alright…that happens. I had unending support from my family, and at that point, we were still doing okay. They hadn’t made it to the jobs they have today, and my mother was furthering more her own education. Things were tight; my siblings were in high school at that point, and while we had to budget, we made ends meet. I took odd jobs here and there, and for the most part, got to stay home to raise my baby.

Still not poor. Still not experiencing poverty.

Then shit happened again. That education my mother was furthering? Her degree left her floundering in a temporarily saturated market, when the economy was falling in a tailspin down the toilet. My father, with his cushy job with tenure? Yeah, that whole market and economy thing struck his sector pretty hard, too.

At about this point, my teenage sibling, during a very exciting senior year, made me an aunt.

So picture this. A husband and wife. Three children, one of whom is an adult, the other two are teens. A two year old grandbaby, and another grandbaby on the way. Oh, and now joining our cozy abode is the other newest addition to the family, the daughter in law.

That’s when things became reminiscent of my childhood.
Enter me becoming very, very ill. I could not work. I could not pay my portion of anything. I was in and out of the hospital. I had tried to go back to school, and that effort was decimated. It’s hard to go to class when you’re possibly dying here and there.

Enter another couple of years of fluctuation. Second child and second grandbaby and daughter in law move out, enjoying their “wedded bliss” and their go at being self-sustaining adults.

At this point, in spite of having a roof over my head, I was personally at the poverty level. My own bills were going unpaid, some of them with dollar figures in the hundred thousands because I spent many of those hospitalizations uninsured. My ability to provide for my child was severely limited. My parents helped, of course, but there’s only so much money to go around. Jobs were hard to come by for anyone anywhere, and no matter what, being an adult means that even if people think you have a free ride, there’s no fucking free ride.

Well, back to the family dynamic. Darling sibling goes through a messy divorce. Back home again, where BAM. My nephew, who had always been special needs health wise, has his health spiral out of control. My child’s special needs rear their ugly heads. Suddenly, an entire family who was holding their own, albeit with a very tight budget, suddenly meets the poverty level once more. My sibling could not work, as he was caring for his gravely ill child. I could not work, as I was caring for a gravely ill me, and my child who was suddenly higher maintenance. My youngest sibling was struggling to make sure that her future remained bright.
I had to bite the bullet. Welfare. I had been on WIC, that kind of went without saying. But now the monsters of food assistance and Medicaid had to be confronted for everyone’s wellbeing.

And that worked for a while. It was the band-aid we needed to get through it. Well, it was truly just a band-aid.

I soon found the love of a man who turned out to be a literally homicidal psychopath, and like in every love story, I got pregnant. BAM. Shit has happened again. Back with the ‘rents. Now the body count is: Two parents, two adult children with two-almost-three grandchildren, and one almost-adult child who is still determined to beat the odds and make something out of her life.

Ohai, welfare. Nice to see you again.

Do you see where this is going? Can you see the pattern? Nobody fucking wants this. Nobody wants this to be their lives. It can happen to anybody. It can happen to those who plan best, it can happen to those who are stupidly convinced they’re bullet proof.

And the poor choices? Well, yeah. We do fucking make those. Because when it comes down to it and you are working any job you can get at any shift, just to make sure that the lights don’t get shut off, or there’s gas in the car to get the kids to school, and doctor appointments, and keep diapers on their asses and clothes on their backs and shoes on everyones’ feet, you say fuck it and you do what you have to do to keep living. You DO smoke those cigarettes to give you just a couple hours more energy. You DO indulge in those bottles of Three Buck Chuck wine, just to find some escape. Your foods are processed because they’re cheap, and if you’re smart, you manage to supplement with the freshest you can afford, but damned if that’s possible all the time. And you sure as hell aren’t buying organic. Trader Joe’s? HAHAHAHAHA. More like Save-A-Lot and the farmer’s market.

My second child was born very, very, very sick. I kept that baby alive through sheer willpower, or so the specialists all tell me. There will be lasting effects from it, and she has a neurological disorder that brings its own can of worms. This is something that, if I had a good job, or a husband who had a job, or even had a family that was slightly less strapped, wouldn’t be that big of a deal.

This is a child who cannot go to day care. This is a child whose dietary needs for the first two years were the cost equivalent of feeding the entire family beforehand. That, combined with her brother’s progressing special needs (and also special diet, and medication needs,) means that we had finally come full circle and hit Rock. Fucking. Bottom.

Veering away from the entirety of my family for a moment, let me show you what this means for me. Just me. This means that my days are spent shuttling back and forth between specialist appointments for both children, and multi-hour, multi-day therapy sessions for one child. Trying desperately to potty train, trying desperately to communicate. Learning sign language and turning around and teaching it. Never leaving her with a stranger, because there’s no way for her to tell me “Mommy, someone is hurting me.” Monitoring another child for behavior changes and seizures. Finally finding a job where I can pick my own hours, move my schedule as needed within limitations, and get paid a wage that even if it were me alone I wouldn’t be able to live off of. It means special diets that are expensive, it means medications that cannot be missed, no matter whether or not I have the money to buy them. It means begging friends for help, praying that nothing goes wrong with food stamp and Medicaid re-certifications, and always, always, always wondering where the next dollar is going to come from.  It means spending a few precious hours with both kids in the afternoons before I go to work, where I get off at midnight, come home and take care of as many things as possible, crash for a few hours of restless sleep, and begin it all over again.

Once upon a time, I dreamt of being a perpetual student. All I wanted to do was study and learn. Sometimes I decided I wanted to do veterinary research. Once, I dreamed of pioneering studies on HIV/AIDS.

I have not even finished a full semester of community college. All thoughts of getting a “real” job are pipe dreams, because when you have a child who does not speak, you cannot simply put them in day care, no matter how free it is, because like I said a moment ago, there is no way for them to tell you “Mommy, someone is hurting me.”

This. Is. Poverty. This is not being a welfare queen. This is not being lazy. This is desperately wanting something more, and never being able to get a step ahead to achieve it.

So where does this leave my entire family at this point? Well, my nephew is doing much better. My sibling got a very promising job with a company that paid well and offered benefits. He found a woman he loves, and they were set to move out and begin anew. Until that company folded. And another baby is on the way.

There are nine of us in this house right now. There will be ten in a few short weeks. Some of us are healthy, some of us are not. Some of us are special needs, some of us are trying our damndest to make it out and succeed. Two full-time careers, one part time job with not even a half-living wage, and one quarter-time job in retail in a college town. There is Medicaid all around, and foodstamps to supplement.  $340 to try and feed a household of ten. It is not uncommon for us to go a few days without phone service, or a night without electricity, because medication needs to be bought, or the price of the supplements for one kiddo or the other has gone up due to high demand and low production. It’s not uncommon for vehicles to go unrepaired because fixing them would be the difference between having a car to drive and eating for two weeks.

This is poverty, people.
We’re not dirty. We don’t impale roaches and lament over crooked teeth that cause us to be passed over for clerical positions or spots in restaurants as wait staff. We paste smiles on our faces and we make ends meet. We swallow our pride and ask friends for money to buy milk and bread when pay day is three days ahead of us and we’ve fallen just that short, and we pray that this friend won’t do what the last did and look you in the eye and tell you no, that they think that you’re just using them when you could surely be doing more to help yourself, or you should surely have someone else to turn to, even if you’ve made sure every time you’ve had to ask that you’ve been vigilant about paying them back with speed and some other small token of gratitude.

 We hide the fact that the power is out from our neighbors, and we hide the fact that this is the third night of spaghetti. We make sure our young children, the second generation, goes through life never ever coming close to comprehending that we had to exchange doing some bookkeeping so that they could go on that field trip, or in my case, in my very lowest moment, pity-fucking so that there were dry diapers for the baby who, because she was so sick, needed to be changed every five minutes or else the diarrhea would eat at her flesh and leave her burned and bleeding.

They will never know that there was a blow job traded for that trip to the pharmacy to pick up their medications.

The rest of the family will never know about that time that there was a motel room with ropes and a gag, and a crowd of cameras, and the blood and the bruises for weeks, just so I could make sure that there was food to go around for everybody, not just the kids, and gas money for us to wake up and start it all over, again and again.

Poverty is not waxing poetic about burning the candle at both ends and lamenting that you don’t cook because you’re afraid that it will make things that are already dirty even more so. Poverty is dealing with it silently, never letting them see you cry, scrubbing the counters until they gleam. Why? Because when nothing else in your life shines, at least that fucking vinegar and baking soda will get the coffee stain out of the grout and remind you that something, somewhere, somehow, can be under your control, and you can make that one part of your life where everything else seems tainted and dirty, covered with despair and worry, finally come clean.

When you’re poor, it’s not your house or your clothes that are dirty. You don’t have poor hygiene. It’s your soul that becomes covered in filth, because that despair and that terror of never knowing what’s coming next, that desperation to climb out of the pit and never finding a foot hold…it all leaves a layer of grime that just builds up. No amount of showering in scalding hot water seems to ever make it go away.

If you’ve read this far, I congratulate you. It can’t have been an easy read. It sure as shit wasn’t an easy write. Please, if you take nothing else away from this, just…be thankful, and think twice about someone you might otherwise write off as “obviously not having it that bad.” Sometimes we become true masters of disguise.



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