I grew up poor. My parents would be horrified to hear me speak of our experiences this way because they worked very hard, tried their best to provide, and really exemplify what it means to be work work work but never ever see that pay off in our so-called meritocratic society.
My parents were divorced. Living with my mom meant dealing with her cycle of endless loser boyfriends she would have move in with us immediately to help her pay the bills. I’m pretty sure several of these assholes sexually abused my younger sister. She has suffered a lifetime of the ill effects of being abused by these men. Men whom, I have to assume, would not be invited into our home so readily if we were not devastated by poverty.
I recall one time my Mom ran off with one of the richer of these boyfriends. She left us with a stranger to take care of us, who promptly left the minute my Mom left town. She would stop by every day around dinner time and leave us with bags of chips. I remember appreciating that these were at least big bags of chips. I can’t help but think this “caretaker” thought of us as cats she just needed to scatter food to and pick up litter in her duties. My sister and I kept ourselves full by eating the bags of chips and having burping contests after drinking from gallon-jugs of water for hours. I was also impressed by my sister’s ability at a young age to cook. She had figured out how to boil the eggs left in the refrigerator and we ate those for a few days while we had them.
Living with my Dad was a slight improvement, if you could get over the physical abuse and the asshole stepmom. Here, you could eat. It was mostly canned foods and my Dad was great at mixing the canned foods together for all number of tasty, sodium-laden comfort foods. Also, there was meat. Fresh fruit was a delightful treat and I quickly gobbled it up, selfishly leaving very little for anyone else. I would steal grapefruits and oranges from people’s trees and on some days, I would only eat grapefruit and the french fries I’d gorge myself on at school. I will never ever forget the delightfulness of mixing ranch dressing and honey mustard together to eat platefuls of stolen french fries.
Growing up poor, you face stigma. I never had friends spend the night at my house, mortified by how small and ugly it was in comparison to my friends’ “lavish” middle-class homes. One friend whom I really liked had her my Mom drop me off at my house after some event at school. My new friend blurted out, “That’s your shitty house? The roof is shit-brown!” I was devastated, as if I needed another reminder of how poor we were.
It’s hard to tell if I lived a poor life because of the poverty or the neglect/abuse I faced as a child. These two certainly can co-occur and it’s not lost on me that poverty is a form of violence against poor people. Whether my parents didn’t have the money for things like new shoes (that didn’t smell awful because they were cheap, plastic, years old) or tampons for me (which left me to bleed on myself at school, much again to my horror and embarrassment), because they truly didn’t have the money or they didn’t want to spend the money on my sister and me, is not clear to me. Both serve as reminders that poverty is something we easily wear on ourselves, whether it was the stench of my shoes or the blood on my body, I was marked as poor. It was truly awful.
When I got to college, I was literally blown away by the money my friends had. I recall pulling up to one friend’s home, calling her to ask what house it was on the end of a cul-de-sac before realizing the entire cul-de-sac was her home. I dated someone else whose parents were millionaires many times over. I eventually broke it off with this person because I felt so out of place. I always felt like an outsider and was always too ashamed to bring my partners or friends home. I wanted to vomit any time one of them mentioned a private jet.
The long-term effects of having grown up poor like this will last a lifetime. While I have a comfortable existence now, I live under the constant fear of being homeless (something my sister and I both did on occasion as teenagers). I worry constantly that I will lose everything. I am racked with guilt that I am the only person in my family to have escaped that poverty. I have indebted myself trying to help my family but at the end of the day, they’re still poor and I’m still terrified.