What I’m going to say isn’t profound, or even news to anyone. But it’s something I’m increasingly feeling and, since this is my blog, I’m going to talk about it.
I grew up pretty poor. I know for a fact that my father never made more than $20k in a year, and I doubt my mother made more. After my father’s work injury and the divorce, the purse strings got even tighter. I was never hungry, so I’m lucky in that sense, but I never realized just how much of a balancing act my father performed to ensure that until recently. Now that I pay a mortgage, have a kid on the way, and compulsively watch my stocks and 401(k), I have a new appreciation for just how poor we were and what little hope my father had of escaping it.
I’m no longer poor. I am solidly middle class, maybe even scratching at the doorway of upper middle class (oh you fancy, huh?). I worry about money in the same way a dog worries about its favorite chew toy–I know it’s not going anywhere, and that if it does there will be more somehow, but I like to keep an eye on it, just in case. Through mostly luck and privilege (if I’m honest) my wife and I are well taken care of. But in feeling this way, I can see how so many others aren’t.
My wife had a small health scare recently that incentivized us to change our diets. We moved toward buying more fruits, vegetables, and oats, less processed food, and “organic” foods that had less sugars and carbs. As a result, our weekly grocery bill got more expensive. That’s just one small thing that is indicative of the cycle that keeps people poor.
If you can’t afford to buy enough vegetables and whole grains to feed your family of four for a week, so you opt for cheaper, more highly processed foods just to keep bellies full, you’re going to be unhealthy. And if you’re unhealthy you’re going to spend more time on medical needs. And more time on medical needs means more money spent on medical needs because the U.S. absolutely refuses to socialize medicine. Don’t forget the time and money you need to spend on public transportation to get to a store, if you’re not in a food desert. If you’re in a food desert, I’m sorry, you’re fucked.
Food deserts are areas (usually urban and usually with high minority populations) that do not have ready access to a large grocery store. According to the USDA, 13.6 million people live in food deserts–and that data’s old! In reality it’s probably more. And with the virus being what it is, and the government doing as little as possible to help its citizens, that number is only going to grow.
I’d like to think this is so obvious no one would ever need to say it, but I will anyway. When you’re poor it’s really, really hard to break that cycle of poverty.
When I consider how my sister and I dug out of our family’s cycle of poverty I can’t identify anything about us that justifies our ascent over someone else. My sister joined the military, which taught her useful skills and gave her steady employment. She helped take care of our family after that. My undergraduate degree was mostly paid for by New York State because of my family’s income (or lack thereof), but I basically squandered that. I fell into the job and career I have now by sheer chance and my sister’s generosity in allowing me to live with her when I first moved to DC, which opened doors that wouldn’t have been otherwise.
There is an impulse in our society, spurred by politicians that have taken up Reagan’s cries of “welfare queens” and the demonization of the “lazy poor,” to look down on those struggling with poverty. Those of us that weren’t born into it have no reference for how difficult it is to be poor, so we look down on them. Say that if only they worked as hard as we do they wouldn’t be poor. America is the land of opportunity, pull yourself up by your bootstraps (some bullshit), whatever. And still more of us that did grow up poor but by some miracle are no longer forget, or confuse our luck with work ethic.
It’s not true. Being poor is really hard work. We’d do well to remember that and lift up instead of shoving down.