Thank you to Jenn for sharing her personal story of living in poverty right now….
Today, I did something I never thought I’d do. I yelled at my son for being hungry. Oh sure, there are many parents nodding in agreement because they’ve done the same thing. Many have yelled at their kids for asking for one more snack right before dinner was served or for wanting to eat junk food out of boredom. That’s not why I yelled. I yelled because I didn’t have extra food to give him and I was taking my frustration out on him. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. He’s just a kid, a 7 year old who is full of energy and constantly growing. Of course he’s hungry often. That’s what kids do. However, I didn’t have enough food for anyone to have extras. Everything has to be rationed out over a week or more. Food stuff needs to be stretched. Already angry and frustrated with our situation, I lost my cool when my child asked a simple question – because I knew there was nothing I could do to change it in that moment. My anger turned to worry, another constant feeling in my daily life, as I wondered if this would create food issues in my child. Will he be afraid to eat, knowing that we might not have enough the next day?
I’m 35 years old. I am a mother and a wife. I am college educated, degreed, and I have held a professional license. I have been working since the age of 18. Until now. I live in poverty. I am poor. My family is poor.
When I say I am poor, I don’t mean that it’s going to take me two weeks to save for a new iPad or the next iWhatever. I don’t mean that I’ll need a coupon to shop at J.Crew. I mean that I have saved my kids Halloween candy for times when my blood sugar gets too low after a day of not eating because I can’t afford enough food for 3 square meals for the entire family. It means that having my heat set above 60 degrees is a luxury. It means that the needle on my gas gauge is constantly hovering at E. It means that we wear our clothes several times before laundering because we can’t afford the fees to use the washing machines. It means the thrift shop is damn expensive. It means so many more things that we don’t often think about unless we’re living in poverty. As a culture, we are disconnected to the idea of not having access to the most basic needs. Consumerism and materialism are supposedly signs of a healthy economy and successful nation, environment be damned, and a blind eye towards those less advantaged is a requirement.
Our story of poverty doesn’t come with credit card bills, expensive cable packages, luxury toys. It’s not that anyone should be judged for why they are poor, but people naturally ask, mostly out of curiosity and sometimes to find information to justify their lack of care for your position, for a way to blame you for your own situation. It makes it easier to detach. We have both been hard workers for over a decade. We have played by the rules. It still got us. I am currently unemployed – and that’s not for a lack of effort. My husband lost a fairly good job over a year ago and we’ve been pulled down a spiral ever since. His period of unemployment meant we burned through our savings and our emergency fund. While I am still unemployed (to be fair, I do walk dogs or babysit on occasion for some cash, but those times are few and far between), my husband is currently working three jobs. Three jobs. My husband is not college educated. He has worked on the warehouse/shipping/receiving side of retail for a very long time and is good at what he does. He’s very strong, enjoys physical labor, and is a hard worker. His three jobs are retail-based. Two of them pay exactly minimum wage. The third pays just above that. He is constantly applying for jobs on a weekly basis, as am I. With three jobs, you can imagine he works many hours. There have been weeks were he worked all three jobs back to back with maybe an hour or two in between. Thanksgiving to the New Year were brutal. He would often work nearly 30 hours in a row, come home to sleep for a few hours, then go back for another cycle of 30 hours. It’s been brutal on his health and our family.
Will someone stop for a moment and tell me in what world is it considered moral for a person to work three jobs and still be unable to support their family. It just isn’t right.
Living in poverty is like being punched in the face over and over and over on a daily basis. It’s pulling yourself out of a hole, only to fall over a cliff. Every step in the right direction is rewarded with a hearty push several steps back. The changes to one’s mental health when living in poverty can be astonishing. I suffered a miscarriage years ago and I knew anger and sadness then. I made my way through it and survived. I didn’t think I would feel such strong emotions again. I was wrong. The anger is back. Anger is for everything. I’m angry I am in this situation. I am angry I’m not good enough for proper employment. I’m angry my children are living through this. I am angry at my husband. I’m angry at Christians who preach against me, ignoring the words of Christ. I’m angry at politicians who vote against people like me. I’m angry at a society that views me as a leech, as a welfare queen, as someone who deserves the be on the bottom of humanity’s shoe.
There is jealousy. I’ve never been a materialistic person and neither has my husband. We have never felt the need to keep up with the joneses – no desire for brand name clothing, big screen TVs, or the latest electronic gadget. We’ve never had cable. I liked to shop when I genuinely needed things, but I wouldn’t overspend or buy things I couldn’t afford. I never owned a credit card. Fashion magazines were fun and I’d laugh at the implication that a woman should spend $200.00 on a pair of jeans. Now, I’m jealous at anyone who can afford to buy $15.00 jeans on sale at Old Navy. Friends post their “OMG! Kohl’s haul!” on Facebook, posting pictures of their new boots, sweaters, jeans, yoga pants, etc. Where I would once say, “oh, those boots are cute,” I am now filled with plain old bitter envy. I wish I could just look at my boots, the ones with the rip in them, decide it was time to buy new ones, and walk out the door to buy a new pair. I wish I could say, “Gee, I sure am sick of wearing the same two shirts day in and day out,” and go to a store a buy a few new shirts that actually fit. I can’t. I have clothes that are finally showing their age and their wear. Threads are falling lose, seams opening, little holes throughout fabric, buttons are disappearing. An acquaintance said to me recently, “You actually look like a poor person.” Gee, thanks. I didn’t know there is a certain look for poor people… My husband spent a few months with holes in his work pants. I sewed them up as best I could, but eventually the fabric would be worn down so much that there wasn’t much to sew. He took to wearing black shorts under his pants (also black) so the holes wouldn’t be a noticeable. Thankfully, he received a couple of new pairs for Christmas. He also spent months walking with holes in his shoes. His sneakers literally fell off his feet one day and he was left with boots that were no longer waterproof and had a hole or two. He’d walk to and from work in rain and snow in those boots. Forget socks. He doesn’t own a pair without holes. We were blessed by a couple of friends who chipped in to buy him and new pair of sturdy, waterproof work boots.
Jealousy isn’t limited to clothing. I’ve been jealous that friends can do wild and crazy things like buy a full tank of gas, get new brakes for their cars, buy a pack of toilet paper, eat. Food is a big one. In this age of social media, one can guarantee that at least 3 ultra-filtered Instagram photos of a friend’s lunch will scroll on by on their computer screen each day. Back in the day, I would just note that so-and-so had a bagel for lunch and I’d go on with my day. Now, I just sit there and wish it was me. I wish I had a plate full of good food to obnoxiously photograph, but I don’t. It’s the food that really drove the issue home for me not too long ago. I had taken my children to Ikea. We weren’t there to buy anything. It was damn cold, we were tired of being cooped up in the house, and there weren’t many options for a free place to play. Ikea has a play zone for my older child. My daughter is more than happy to walk around the store, sitting on sofas and chairs. I love Ikea because it’s fun to imagine having different furniture and organization. While there, I bought my kids lunch. They had one of their specials going and kiddie meals were free! My kids each had a meal, which included drinks. I didn’t get anything for me. As they ate, I would pick at their plates, stealing a bite here and there. I looked at everyone eating around me and that’s when the tears, which I fought very hard to hold back, started to flow. I wanted so badly to be able to order something for myself. I was starving and the little bites of steamed veggies and mac ‘n’ cheese weren’t very filling. I hadn’t eaten yet that day and found myself just staring at the plates of strangers, wishing I was free to get myself something to eat. I found myself glaring at people through my tears as they took plates and bowls half full of food to the trash center – what a waste of food! Never before had I been tempted to say, “hey, I’ll take that,” than I was on that day. My son noticed me wiping tears and asked what was wrong. I lied and told him I took a bite of his sister’s squash and it must have had some sort of spice on it and I was reacting to that. He believed me for a moment, taking a last bite of his mashed potatoes before pushing the plate over to me and telling me he was full. More tears to fight off.
That brings me to the hunger. The hunger is extraordinary. There is a constant gnawing in your stomach, an empty feeling that has taken up permanent residence. Even as you’re eating a meal, you feel the hunger. It never goes away because you don’t know when you’re going to eat again. You don’t know if your next meal will be something proper or if it’ll be half a fun-sized bag of M&M’s that you hoarded from your kids’ Halloween haul or nothing at all. It’s an ever-present gastric uncertainty. As food stamp benefits continue to be cut and food pantries struggle to feed communities, that uncertainty will just continue. I hate to think of my children feeling the same way. They get first dibs on all food that comes through this house. There are many days when my kids get their three meals and I get half of one and my husband….well, I never see him because he is working all the time, but he barely eats, too. This is obviously unhealthy. Our health has tanked over the last year. I’ve been told I constantly look tired. My eyes are more sunken, devoid of light. My skin is dry, blemished, and overall just blah. My hair is brittle and I lose a lot of it on a daily basis. I’m constantly weak. My husband is a very strong man, but he has lost an alarming amount of muscle and strength in the past year. The two of us are constantly exhausted. Part of that is the hunger, part of it is emotional.
The emotions certainly take their toll. Hopelessness is unbearable. I was once someone that my friends would always look to for a positive thought and encouraging words. I always managed to see the good in every situation. I try my best to hold onto that, but it’s been slipping away quickly. Fear is constant. You’re always afraid of what’s next. I’m afraid of opening my bills to find new late fees. I’m afraid of losing utilities. I’m afraid of being evicted because we can’t afford our rent. You want to think positive, but the idea of “what’s next” is always looming. Things that might seem minor to one person can spell disaster for a family in poverty. Last week, my husband told me my tail light was out. This is typically not a big deal for many people. To us, it’s terrifying. We don’t have the money for a new tail light. But, it’s illegal here to have one out. Our cops here are very good at pulling you over for broken lights, outdated stickers, etc. Obviously, it’s the law to keep your car in check. We know this. I’ve always been great at keeping my car well-maintained. My inspections were always done on time, lights would be replaced immediately, oil is always changed, I never drove on gas fumes at the needle hovered on E. It’s all different now. Small things are big things. Monumental things. The idea of needing a tail light, an inspection, or a new tire due to the 100′s of pot holes created by tons of snow this Winter is enough to send me into a panic. Weather is terrorizing these days. Two of my husbands jobs can be called off due to snow or ice because the trucks can’t get to them, so they tell staff to stay home. We’ve had storm after storm after storm this season. My husband has missed so much work, not by choice, due to snow and ice. We added it up and discovered that he missed enough to pay for nearly two months of rent. Same for me – no doggies to walk in this weather because people are staying home.
Poverty is isolating. Friends eventually fade away because they think you’re ignoring them when you constantly turn down their invites to dinner or events. They take it personal no matter how many times you insist it’s not. Your children’s social lives suffer for the same reason – you can’t afford to send them to many birthday parties or playdates. Trips to zoos, museums, and other fun places with admission fees are extremely limited. People eventually tire of you being unavailable to come out for fun and they stop calling and texting. And maybe I should say those people aren’t friends in the first place, but it doesn’t take the pain away. It doesn’t make me hurt less for my children. Conversely, you have friends who know you’re in poverty and they try to brainstorm, try to help you through it. You say thank you a million times, but it’s not enough. After a while, trying to save you is boring and when they realize they didn’t fix you, they get annoyed. I’ve been called everything by people who were supposed to be my friends. Because I can’t snap my fingers and make things work perfectly and because that fact depresses the fuck out of me, I’ve been called useless, manipulative, worthless, unmotivated. No one wants to hear that you have tried all the options that they suggested and they didn’t work out. No one wants to hear that you know exactly why a suggestion won’t work. They don’t understand why you can’t “just move” or “just declare bankruptcy” or just swing around a pole (note: no one ever suggests that my husband sell his body for cash…but quite a few people have presented it as an option for me). This isn’t to say they are not well-meaning – and they certainly are not under appreciated by me – but they eventually get exasperated when you explain time and time again why certain suggestions don’t work. They want to fix you, fix you now, get you to shut the fuck up about being poor. It’s hard for others to deal with the overwhelming depression and hopelessness that accompanies poverty. It’s hard for them to hear that you don’t want to get up in the morning anymore, that you just want to end it all. So, it’s sometimes easier to be angry at the poor person, to convince yourself that they just don’t want to work for it, and keep your distance from them. Many friendships have been strained by poverty.
However, no one can be as hard on you as you are on yourself. I spend hours per day telling myself how much I suck. If only I had done this or done that. I know our circumstances were beyond our control. I know how hard we try every single say. But, it doesn’t stop me from doubting myself, from putting myself down. It doesn’t stop the shame. I feel like a leech. I’m told by my friendly clergymen, my wonderful politicians, and by people I know and once called friends that I am a burden on society. I’m a taker. If only I worked harder. If only I wanted to stop being poor and getting handouts, then everything would turn around and I would be rich. If only I would pray harder, attend the correct church, and read an ancient book that I have read cover to cover many times in the past. Then God would just bestow His blessings upon me. Or, I should really just consider putting some positive energy out into the Universe. If I meditate and tell the Universe that I want money, money will come and everything will be fixed. The constant shouts from society’s peanut gallery telling me how the poor or worthless and damned help shape my inner dialogue and I begin to agree with them. I am worthless. I deserve the shame I feel.
It’s hard to accept help when your inner dialogue tells you that you are useless. People tell me to be willing to accept help, I’ll be able to pay it forward someday. Without friends and the kindness of strangers, we wouldn’t have had a Christmas for our kids. My car payment would not have been paid for a couple of months, my husband would still have holes in his boots, and my car would still be uninspected and I’d be in deep shit. And we’re still here, still in need.
I sit here now, writing this at my desk that is piled with overdue utility bills and a statement from my landlord telling us they are pursuing legal action against us because our rent is currently 17 days late. I have multiple windows open on my computer – several for job applications for me, several job applications for my husband to look at once he’s home from work, a few for charity searches, another for prayer requests, and another for a site that offers emotional support and solidarity for people like me. The future is more than uncertain and it feels that the ground under me can open at any moment and swallow me whole.
And so I do pray. I do hope. I work hard to get our family out of this hell hole and so does my husband. I am grateful in ways that I cannot fully express for all the help that has come to my family in recent months from both friends and strangers. It reminds us that even though life is pure shit right now, there are bright spots. The good exists. So, we continue to focus on that. I hope to eventually write about how we struggled, survived, and came out on top. Until then, be nice to the poor folk. You can have all the assumptions in the world about how they got there, how the feel, how much they “take,” but you can never really know their true story – humans deserve compassion.
Jupiter here. The outpouring of support and people wanting to help has been incredible. I started a gofundme page to handle donations for those interested:
Donate to Jenn and her family here
For those who have asked about physical donations such as clothing,food,etc…. I am not comfortable publishing Jenn’s address here publicly. Bear with me…working on a solution.
I have a PO Box people can send small items and gift cards to, I guess? I couldn’t afford to ship heavy items to her,though. PO Box 905, Trumansburg NY 14886
I’ve talked to Jenn many time throughout the day and 1st of all, she’s immensely grateful. I’ve known Jenn for quite awhile and know that her gratitude is sincere and the generosity will be paid forward to others.
Secondly, her husband applied at Costco (in Pennsylvania). Jenn was wondering if anyone has connection w/ Costco in the northeast and could maybe help a little with this?
You can email me at jupitersinclair[at]gmail[dot]comJenn passed along a “Thank you”. You can read it here.
Hello,again. I just wanted to take a minute to address a couple things here that a very small number of people have concerns about. I’ve already mentioned a bit of this in Jenn’s Thanks and my pre-ramble before it (and please do go read that f you haven’t already!), but traffic seems to still be heavier for this post with not so many visit for the latter.
Ok,first… there wasn’t ever any point where anyone said that cash only donations would be accepted. As stated above, I was trying to figure out the logistics of that ,for one thing. I do have quite a bit of experience collecting and distributing goods that need to get to places they’re needed and I just know that many times it’s impractical. Not only is it pricey to ship a box of canned food but when you have a lot of people reaching in to their closets for things to donate to ONE family, what happens is a major overflow of goods that one family couldn’t possibly use but still has to figure out what to do with.
So, I suppose I would most definitely discourage physical items…but I can’t refuse enthusiastic help. I also know that Jenn would be able to pass along overflow to connections she has in her community, such as Catholic Charities. As it stands right now, there IS a place to mail items if you really want to do that. (You can find that info in the thank you post).
There was tremendously weird discussion about the issue of PO Box. I have a PO Box. It’s up there. Like I said, people can send me small things I can forward them. As the theme of this blog implies, I’m kinda poor. I can’t afford to forward large boxes of things. I do not suggest anyone put their home address on the Internet. I’ve learned to be cautious from experience. Why doesn’t Jenn get a PO Box “with all that money raised in gofundme” ? In case you’re unaware of how gofundme works, it takes 2-5 business days for the transfer to a bank account to begin. Not all the money is available at once. It’s transferred in increments. Meaning: the gofundme money is not even in Jenn’s bank account yet. When the first of it does arrive there, there are pressing needs such a dealing with eviction,court fees,broken taillight…
But the really cool thing about money is that you can buy food with it,too.
I know that some people who have never experienced poverty will still not understand a lot of narratives about poverty. Even if you grew up in poverty, you still only have the experience of being a child in poverty, not as an adult trying to keep their head above water for themselves and their kids. So, while that experience is your own, it is not the experience of a parent dealing with poverty, or even of other children who grew up poor. My point is, each person has their individual story to tell. You can learn from them and grow a better understanding & compassion , or you can sit in judgement and condemnation because the narrative doesn’t match the one you made up in your head. S’up to you.