For a very long time, basically my entire adult life until last year, I lived in poverty. The extent of the poverty varied, from well below the poverty line to just hovering around it. Either way, I was poor for a long time. For my girls entire childhoods. Pretty much since I had them and until Steve and I moved in together.
I never talked about it for the same reason that no one I know who lives in poverty talks about it. Because they are ashamed. And because pretty much anyone who lives above the poverty line will basically tell you that it’s your own fault and you aren’t working hard enough. ** There are exceptions to this, but it’s rare. Very rare. **
The real problem with poverty is exactly that. The assumption that it’s the poor persons fault. So you have this person who doesn’t have enough of anything and we beat them down for it. And anyone who has raised a kid or made a friend knows that you don’t get very far with someone by belittling them. Especially when they are already feeling bad.
I worked. A variety of jobs, always trying to find a better one. Or a job with better hours so I could work a second job or just one job so I could actually be around my kids and go to their activities. But here’s the thing… Jobs that pay 7 dollars an hour don’t care. They really don’t. Not about your kids or your sick mom or your school schedule or anything. So scheduling around taking care of kids or another job is impossible. Plus, they don’t want to insure you so they keep you under 30 hours a week. Which, if you do the math, means you take home $217.50 before taxes. Try raising a family on that. Try just paying rent on that. Forget eating. Eating is cereal and Mac and Cheese because YOU HAVE NO MONEY!
Then there is that wonderful little meme floating around Facebook that says that if you don’t like minimum wage or poverty, you should go back to school. Or, be a good employee and you will get paid better. But I was a very good employee. I’ve never had anything but positive feedback and reviews in all the jobs I’ve had. They just don’t want to pay well because it hurts their bottom line. And someone always needs a job so you are replaceable. It’s really that simple.
And college, well… 30k in debt for someone who is already so poor that they can’t afford food is kind of bad math. It’s supposedly a better option than most but it’s not a good one. Going into debt when you can’t make ends meet is just bad math.
And really, we need people to work in the service industry. We all buy pizza and groceries and gas for our cars, and the people who work those jobs deserve to be able to pay their bills. First off, they deserve it because they are human beings just like us, but also because we depend on them to live our lives so conveniently. They deserve a living wage, even if they aren’t highly educated. Why does that have to be for everyone anyway?
I’m not someone who pretends to know the answer. Do I think paying people a living wage would help? Yes. Do I think higher education should stop being a for-profit business at the expense of people trying to make their lives better? Yes. Do I know how to make that happen? No. But I do know that if we don’t talk about poverty, and it’s so taboo that people are shamed into silence about it like victims, then we aren’t ever going to get anywhere.
For me, poverty was traumatic and something I’m honestly still trying to recover from. It’s scary to not know how to pay the rent or the water or heat bill. It’s scary to know that 20 dollars is all the groceries you can buy for a week. It’s crushing and heartbreaking to finally ask for help from someone and be belittled and talked to like you are a failure. But do that for many years and it becomes traumatic. Something you need to recover from, not something you can just leave behind.
It’s strange now, to buy good healthy food and not think twice. To not have to constantly total the groceries in my cart so that I am sure that I have enough money to pay for them. To have the rent paid, to be buying a house, to drive a vehicle that has no problems at all and is safe to take on trips. I feel lighter. But I also feel lucky.
I think of poverty like a walled city. And the “help” and government assistance out there is like someone handing you a little toddler steeping stool and telling you that if you try hard enough you can use it to climb the 20 foot wall around the city. But you have to be special, like, Michael Jordan special, to make it over that wall. Or, you have to have someone willing to reach in there and pull your ass out. And these days, no one wants to do that. It’s every man for himself these days. Families scatter and resent being asked for help. From my experience, asking for help paying a 400 dollar heat bill so you don’t get shut off will result in hours of belittling for a week straight. And it may get paid, and of course you’re grateful, but you pretty much feel like the most worthless person on the planet. Only you are doing all you can and trying your best but the government stepping stool that everyone raves about just isn’t fucking high enough. And no one can raise a family on minimum wage. It just isn’t possible.
So how did I get out? How did I get so incredibly lucky that I thank my stars every single day?
I married a man with a good job. Someone who came in and saw how hard I was working and how difficult my life was and he didn’t run. And he didn’t belittle me or judge me or assume that it was all my fault. He looked around at my life and who I am and what I was doing and he believed in me. And no matter how many times I told him I was fine and that I didn’t need him, he kept trying to help. He kept coming back because he knew that I wasn’t really so hard and tough, but that I was so afraid of being honest and admitting that I’d been drowning for years and really did need someone to help me. And so he did. Just like that. Which I guess you could call luck but really I think of it as a miracle.
I don’t know how to solve the problem of poverty in America. But I will tell you it’s everywhere and you know lots of people living there that just can’t admit it to you, because they are afraid of what you’ll say and how you’ll treat them. So I’m saying all this here now, and if I get bashed for it from anyone, whatever. I’m going to try really hard not to care. Because I do know that the only way to change poverty is to change the way many Americans view it, and we can’t do that it we refuse to say it out loud. So I’m starting the conversation.