The last I heard, 46 percent of Americans are now officially under the poverty limit (even though it's probably more). I get so pissed when I hear people judging people like this, because I know what it's like. I know what it's like to be judged and get advice from people who, no matter how well meaning, don't understand that if there was any way out of this fucking trap, you would have already found it.
So the implication that you're just not as smart/motivated/willing enough to find a job (or a better one) just adds to the overwhelming stress and panic. (My personal favorite? "If you were desperate enough, you'd take anything you could get." Oh, the unintended humor.) The other problem is, people who aren't poor think everyone can get food stamps, or welfare. Short answer: Are you fucking kidding me?
If you know someone who's in this position, don't explain to them what's wrong with them -- just buy them a bag of groceries or a tank of gas. Via the Poor As Folk blog, this powerful piece called Jenn's Words:
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.