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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Growing Up Poor -- Guest Post

Today Kristen Duvall gives another poignant perspective on poverty. She grew up with it, and can speak to the judgment and its effects like no one else.


For most of my life, I've tried to hide where I came from. I see the type of hate and derision thrown toward people who are thought of as “poor” and I did everything in my power to pretend that wasn't me.

Growing up, people often tossed around insults to those on welfare, and I'd try to pretend it wasn't me they were making fun of. Early on in life, I learned to grit my teeth, look away and try to block out the cruelty. I know that the kids in my class were merely repeating the words their parents had said at home, that they logically had no idea what it was like for my family, but still... Every time someone made a jab about the lazy leeches living off of government assistance, they were talking about me. When people say, “Can't feed them, don't breed them,” they're talking about me. In my head, I was something to be despised simply because I was born into the family I was. I didn't ask for any of it.

I'm tired of hiding. I'm tired of being ashamed of a situation that I had no control over. I'm tired of friends posting memes bashing the poor, including the children of the poor, while they perpetuate the misconception that people like my family are lazy, good-for-nothing welfare queens.

Because they're not.

My family didn't just fall on hard times – their entire life has been filled with one ridiculous tragedy after another. While we hadn't always been poor, the problems my family encountered started early in my life. My dad was a Vietnam war veteran and worked hard until the day he died. But he died very young and left my mom a widow at the age of 30. She had no warning he would die on her, and when he passed, he left her with two daughters to care for. I was only three and a half at the time. She did everything she could for us, she worked very hard my entire life, but her health problems left her disabled and without a regular source of income at a young age.

Yet, she resisted filing for disability benefits for many years. It wasn't an easy choice for her, not something she took lightly. It took years of coaxing from family members to finally get her to apply.

When I say we were poor, I don't mean we didn't get name brand clothes or drove a used car. Oh no, we often went without water, and for most of my childhood, we didn't have heat. Our house was falling down around us because my mom couldn't afford the repairs needed to maintain it. We had holes in the floor big enough for me to fall through, and a well with a pump that constantly failed. Because we had no heat, our pipes would freeze in the winter meaning no water then too. Sure, it could have been worse, even for us. At least we had a roof over our heads – even if it was threatening to fall down on top of us.

But then things got worse.

A few years ago, my family lost everything when their house burned to the ground. Because of the issues with the house, my mom couldn't afford the insurance premiums, so when it was destroyed, they were left homeless. Had it not been for the kindness of strangers, I don't know what they'd have done.

To this very day, my mom, brother, and stepfather continue to live in the small, cramped RV that was gifted to them after they lost their house. It has no running water and no way to cook food other than a hot plate and a microwave – most nights, my mom eats nothing but canned green beans with ham seasoning. Despite it all, they're grateful to have a roof over their heads.

I'm not in a place where I can help them. I'm barely getting by on my own and living thousands of miles away. All I've ever wanted to do was help pull them out of poverty. I was the golden child, the first person in my family to graduate high school, much less college and then graduate school. I earned degrees in subjects I thought would be practical, that would help me earn the sort of income to allow me to help them. It wasn't what I enjoyed studying, but it wasn't about me. I needed a career that allowed me to make enough money to take care of them.

And I've failed. 

Every time one of my friends posts about how lazy and horrible the poor are, I still feel like they're talking about me. Like they're talking about my family. I grit my teeth and try to remind myself that they're not doing it on purpose and don't really mean me, but it still hurts. You see, my mom is a great person. Truly, she is. She's always volunteered for school events and around the community. She's given to charity even when she had very little to give. She raised me to be a strong, independent woman who knows that I'm not entitled to anything and that life is unfair sometimes. I've learned the value of a dollar, and you will never see me spending a hundred dollars on a purse or a pair of shoes, no matter how much money I make, because I realize what truly matters in this world. I know what it's like to go without basic necessities, and because of that, I never waste water or throw out perfectly good food. All thanks to my my past. All thanks to my mom.

So yes, it hurts me to see others – especially people I consider to be friends – bashing the poor. Bashing people like my mom. Sure, you might say, she's the outlier, an anomaly in an otherwise lazy group. But no, my friends, she's not. How do I know this? Because I've lived it. I've been deep into the bowels of poverty and lived to tell the tale. I've met people who may surprise you, I've heard their stories, I've lived their stories.

And guess what? Not all of these people are there because they're lazy. Bad things do sometimes happen to good people. But that's a fact we like to forget because it's less scary to imagine that these folks deserve everything they've had happen to them. It's comforting to forget that sometimes we lose jobs, our husbands die, or we're struck with a debilitating disability and our six months of savings can only go so far when faced with a catastrophe like that.

Believe it or not, being on welfare isn't fun. It's not a vacation. It's not easy living month to month, worrying about whether or not you'll be able to eat next week. It's no picnic in the park, trust me. Don't believe me? Try washing your hair in a bucket of cold water and tell me how you like it. Because I've been there. My family is still there as we speak, and they're not enjoying life.

While you're at it, why not spend a Midwestern winter without heat. Try to get to work with a car that doesn't start when the temperature drops below a certain point. Try saving up for emergencies when you make less than $300 a month and your rent is almost twice that. Try paying for childcare while working a minimum wage job and see that you're pretty much giving your babysitter your entire paycheck. 

And to top it all of, try dealing with the people who think you're lazy, that you have it easy, and make demeaning comments about every little thing you do.

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