Faces of Poverty Part I: Mine

I think a lot about social stratification. I grew up poor. My entire family was poor. One year my mother actually managed to take care of two kids, an injured husband, assorted dogs, goats, horses on 12K. I am young enough that that number should shock you. I am old enough to know (and knew then) that we still had it better than most. We were never on public assistance. I don’t say that as a boast, as “well, at least we were never on public assistance”. For whatever reason we didn’t qualify, and when I was about seven, mom stopped trying to get approved for it. I imagine it was pride. You can only worry about your kids being hungry and be told that you’re on your own for so long before you decide “Screw you, system.”

In the rural South, I can say for certain: that system doesn’t work. The face of poverty is complex, and for my part, I never felt impoverished. I owe that largely to a grateful heart, simple desires, and parents who believed that it was their job to worry. Not mine. I was not the typical face of poverty, and I had more than I needed. That’s a tricky word there: “need”. People don’t understand it. They want it to encompass more than basic clothing, food, and shelter.

We did not have name brand clothing. My first pair of Nike’s were hand me downs from one of Mum’s friends. I was in middle school. I remember them vividly. They were green and white, a size 8 1/2, and as I had gym for the first time in my life rather than outdoor PE, I was ecstatic to have shoes that gave my persnickety feet the extra support they seem to have always needed on man-made surfaces. I cared that they were “Nike” for all of two days, because they were my first pair, but it didn’t take me long to realize that they were an adult shoe, modest like the nurse who’d worn them before me, rather than the shiny, young kicks all the other kids were wearing. I was lucky that I didn’t care.  That I didn’t actually like the shiny wild kicks that my classmates were wearing (Though dear gods, I STILL want a pair of shoes that light up). My little brother did. He has always suffered from the need to fit in and belong. In a consumer driven country, poverty is especially hard on those who believe what advertisers tell them they need.

We didn’t go out to eat except for special occasions. There were no daily trips to McDonalds after school. As one might expect, we were healthier for it. We didn’t have a lot of bad for us, fake food at home. 3 square meals and an afternoon snack. I think the worst thing we ever ate (nutritionally speaking) was Mum’s fried chicken (SOSOSOSO GOOD) and the Little Debbies we had with our PB&Js. We didn’t go out for every birthday. Mum made our favorite meal and bought us a birthday cake. Going to Pizza Hut for cheesey garlic bread and cokes was a special treat. One plate split between us and Mum. I am proud to say that while my parents’ financial situation is a little better now that Da has a better job and they aren’t raising two children, she still continues that tradition with my nephews. Though now that E is a teenager, they add a pizza.

We moved a lot until I was eleven. First Mum and Dadai moved often for his job. I was along for the ride. I don’t technically know how many times we moved, but by the time Mum left Dadai I can remember at least five places around the state. I know that it was more than that, and as I was only five when they divorced, I think it was not so partially responsible for my inability to stay in one place for too long. (But that’s a story for another day).  After that Mum and Da moved us five times. Four between the age of five and the age of eleven. When I was eleven, we finally bought land and moved into a single-wide trailer in the country. They have that same property (though they’re no longer in the single-wide) still.

My grandmothers had less than we did. Mum’s mom lived in an ancient singlewide, shared by her two derelict sons. She actually had to move out because the oldest wouldn’t leave. (The youngest did get married and move out). I don’t remember thinking that she was poor. She worked at a sewing plant and I remember that we would take bags of  imperfects to the African American family who lived down the road. A lady with seven children, no husband, who struggled more than we did. I remember wearing some of those imperfects myself, but most of my clothes were made by Memaw. I didn’t realize that she had so little because she did so much. It wasn’t until I was much older and explaining why I like oven toast (only toasted on the top) better than toaster oven or toaster toast that I realized it.

On cold weekend mornings, we would dash down the length of the trailer from Memaw’s room to the kitchen. Once in there, she’d open the oven and turn it on. She’d tell me to stand close but not touch anything while she put the percolator on for coffee, a pot of water for grits, and put five pats of butter on each slice of bread for our toast. I remember watching in fascination as the toast browned in the oven, feeling the lovely warmth seeping through my nightgown. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized it was her only source of heat.

I still make my toast in the oven.

So yes, I grew up poor. We didn’t have regular health care or dental. I went to the emergency room when I got sick enough and like as not the bill came out of any possible state tax returns my parents got. People who aren’t poor always wonder why people who are poor are. I know that entitlement is a problem. I know that abuse of the system is a problem, but I also know–intimately–that these sweeping generalizations are not the answer. My parents weren’t lazy. Da and Dadai were both skilled laborers. Da is an introvert though and angry with it. He has always had a harder time finding a good job than Dadai and since child support from Dadai was not what you would call dependable, we relied on Da’s much lower income. Still, he worked. And Mum took care of us. She took odd jobs when we were younger and her health was better, but Mum’s family has a hereditary heart condition that had her in and out of hospitals for much of my life. Medical bills didn’t help in our dance along the poverty line.

We got by. I babysat. My brother and I did yard work. I helped Dadai on odd jobs that he took for friends doing electrical work. I had Sundance, so I didn’t feel compelled to get a car and my license like most kids do the moment they come of age. I got a job at sixteen and saved up so that I could afford to pay the car insurance increase my parents were going to see once I got my permit. Mum drove me to and from work and I bought the gas. I had my permit for longer than anyone I know. I got my license only a handful of months before I bought my first truck, with my own money, in my name. I paid for the taxes, tags and insurance, working, borrowing, and struggling my way through college. It took me seven years to get my BA because I had to go barely full time and work just shy of full time. Do I believe that there is a student loan racket out there along with ridiculous costs of education? Abso-damn-lutely.

But here’s the thing. It would have been nice if during our worst times, there’d been some kind of assistance. That year, for instance, that Da was out of work for six months while he recovered from spine surgery. It would be nice for higher education not to have put me into a ridiculous amount of debt. And yet…

The truth of the matter is that we are, none of us, entitled to these things. We are born into a country so wealthy that there is no reason for our basic needs of food and shelter to go unmet, but these are BASIC. This does not mean McDonalds, cellphones, cars, crab legs, soda, brie, and truffle oil. It means PB&J, rice, vegetables, chicken legs, and hamburger. It means cooking at home and hand-me-down clothes. It means off brands and rare luxuries. It means working hard if you want more than that, not being angry that someone else has what you don’t because of an accident of birth.

Life isn’t fair. We aren’t born in a vacuum. We’re born into a competitive biological system that manifests in the complex social systems of our times. As long as these systems are comprised of humans, there will be an uneven distribution of wealth and power. That’s just reality. Our social values determine the fluidity of these structures of stratification. As does how we view our status as well as those whose status is not our own. I certainly don’t believe in rigid class structures. I’m morally opposed to caste systems. But I am equally opposed to mindsets that suggest anything beyond hard work and social contribution entitles an individual to anything.

We are animals. It’s something that humans like to forget. If a creature is born and will not do what it needs to procure its own food and shelter it dies. PERIOD. Is it sad to see it happen? Well, maybe. I know that I don’t like watching something suffer and starvation is particularly awful. However, it is a part of natural selection. Animals who can’t take care of themselves die, preferably before they produce offspring. Somewhere along the way, humans have decided that they are above such safeguards, and while I believe that we’ve accomplished wonderful things that make us special, we have also found horrible things that make us unique.

We have to find some balance.

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