Ketchup sandwiches and other things stupid poor people eat
Anastasia Basil

Excellent piece. Nail on the head. Some of the comments I have read strike me as “thou dost protest too much”. I would never, for example, say all conservatives are mean-spirited and “victim-blaming” towards the poor, but I can honestly say that every time I have seen/heard that attitude presented — it was a conservative presenting it. I even dated a man once with that attitude. Ultimately we were together for six years. He was from a family that was quite wealthy and he had never really known want…and he believed that “we all have the same opportunity in the US!”. After quite some time, and as he learned about what I had survived and various and sundry things I had been through…what my ‘potential’ had been in my youth and the reality of what I was and was not able to do with it because of circumstances beyond my control — well, ultimately he had to realize and admit that there’s quite a bit more to the story than “we all have the same opportunities” and that the tired trope of “bootstraps” was just that.

(*Trigger in this, as well, down further) This is going to be a little long, a little disturbing, some say TMI — don’t read it if you don’t want to, but if you want to know the kind of things that set someone back twenty spaces on the game board from the start of life so that they spend the next 20 years just trying to get somewhere close to where “average”/normal” people start the game, read on…and then realize that the few times I have shared my story to female friends in my life, I have learned that there are a whole lot of people who, like me, started ten to twenty paces away from the starting line…and a lot of them had even worse tales to tell than my own. It’s not an ‘equal opportunity world, it’s 40% luck, 50% what ‘class’ you were born into, 5% skill and 5% the randomness of the universe (or does that just make it 45% luck?).

I was raised by a paranoid schizophrenic single mother, not only were we poor (mother, sister, I), there were many other issues in our household as well, such as physical and mental/emotional abuse. Throughout my elementary school years I attended upwards of 8 schools — because we were evicted time and again when our mother had spent too much of her check at the bars or God only knows what else she did with the money…but one thing she certainly didn’t do, at least once, sometimes twice, a year, was pay the damned rent. Once she was informed that children’s services were coming to the house so she had to go to the neighbor’s apartment and ‘borrow’ groceries for the fridge and cupboards until the home visit was complete — of course at which point she had to take the groceries back, leaving us once again, with a sack of potatoes, some rice, and kool-aid. I remember days upon days when all we ate were potatoes; baked potatoes, fried potatoes, french fries, hash browns… I remember well ketchup sandwiches and government cheese. And I remember being looked down upon because I got “reduced price lunches” (meaning I didn’t eat a lot of the time because mommy dearest couldn’t give me the 40c or whatever it was, for the ‘reduced’ cost) Not only did I attend numerous elementary schools before ‘graduating’ to junior high, once there (2 years, folks) I went to 3 different junior highs and between 9th and 10th grade (at which point I dropped out to work for a living — more on that in a few) I went to 3 different high schools, yes, in 2 years. Despite all of this moving about, essentially raising my little sister (since mommy dearest was always out working, partying, or doing god knows what), babysitting for dollars my mom would only take away for her own use, twice being molested, once by an uncle, once by her live in bf, following the legal pad paper list of ‘chores’ to be completed every day (to not do so was to incur a wrath that would leave bruises for days), and so many other obligations a child should not have put upon their shoulders, I was a straight A student, in fact I was in the gifted and talented program. At one point, in middle school, I believe, the kids in the G&T program were given IQ tests, I tested at “genius” level.

My dream was to go to college, then med school. In another life that may have occurred. When I was in 10th grade the armed forces recruiters came to the high school to talk about how great serving your country was and all the ‘perks’ that came with it. I ultimately ended up taking the ASVAB and doing very well on it. When the recruiter asked me what I wanted to do with my life I told him that my goal was college then med school, I wanted to be a doctor, I had wanted to be a doctor as long as I could remember. He told me about how the army could make that happen, that for each year of education you paid back with X amount of service. The way I had calculated — I could become a doctor while serving, spend my 20 years in (between the education and the service my education would be paid back) — and I could career out with a military retirement (probably with quite the rank) and open a private practice. I thought I had my life all planned out. At that point I had enough credits where, if I continued on the same path during the next year, year and a half, I could essentially graduate a year early and enlist.

Man plans, God laughs. A month or so later my mother, I assume given the head’s up by ‘the voices’, decided that while I was babysitting I was having sex with someone. (BTW I was a bullied ‘geek’ in school, I was too tall, too smart, I had “bloomed early”, thus not one boy my age had the slightest interest in me. If they did, it was the best kept secret I’ve ever seen. The only guys interested in me, in my experience, were 20 or 30 somethings, often my friend’s fathers…no one I was interested in!) So I came home from babysitting one day and my mother popped that one on me and proceeded to beat the shit out of me for 45 minutes. When she was done (when the bruises finally showed some time later) I was covered from shoulders to buttocks — no skin tone visible, I was black, blue and purple….later yellow…on my entire back. Later that day I was told to do the dishes, I did, and then I snuck a sharp kitchen knife into my waistband and tried to slit my wrists that night just to escape the constant physical and emotional abuse.

The next day I got overheated at school (wearing a long sleeve shirt to try to hide the damage on a hot day) and rolled my sleeves up to cool down. My teacher sent me to the counselor, the counselor called CPS (or whatever it was called back then), CPS took me to the ER for evaluation and a record of the abuse…and by the end of the day I was dumped at a “runaway shelter” for the time being, until something was resolved. I ended up on my own by 16, dropping out of school in order to work for a living as now I had rent to pay. At 18 (the earliest they’d allow it) I took, and passed, my GED. By 20 I had married (an abusive man, textbook shit for someone who has survived child abuse), by the time we divorced I was 23 and had 3 children. I was single, bar-tending and on welfare.

At 23 I took an entrance exam for a college nursing program and, after passing the exam, began classes the following January, a one year Practical Nursing program. This would be as close as I ever got to using that IQ and that desire to be a doctor. Had I been raised in a more stable environment maybe I could have at least completed school and been able to proceed with scholarships, I certainly had the grades and intellect, you can’t do that with a GED. I did go back to the armed forces recruiters after I got my GED and tried that route again…at that point I was told something about qoutas being met and not needing/accepting any more women with GEDs — I recall getting very angry and having a heated discussion because “you’ll accept a man with an IQ of 80 because ‘me man, strong, shoot gun’…but you won’t accept a female with an intellect who wants to make the Army a career?” Whatever, it didn’t make a difference, I didn’t think it would, I just don’t have a filter between my brain and my mouth. I worked 3 part-time jobs while going to college full-time that year, while raising 3 children all under the age of 4 AND still made Dean’s List. I passed the exam for my Practical Nursing license and immediately went from bartender wages to several dollars an hour above minimum wage, however, raising 3 children with one income, no child support, making too much to qualify for any government assistance whatsoever, but barely enough to make it after rent, utilities, insurance, child care, etc. was small comfort. During my 20+ years of nursing I worked in many different areas, from “high tech pediatric home care” to HIV/AIDS hospice, from the Med/Surg ward at a medium sized hospital in Kentucky, to “Elder Services Director” at a Native Corporation in Alaska. I started, as a new nurse, making 13/hr and, for a couple short years, working as an “executive” running several programs, etc, making — well probably more than just about any other LPN in the USA…then my health issues ended it all.

I always intended to go back for my RN, but when you have children and bills and life happens…it’s hard to find time or finances to make that happen and before I knew it my children were all but grown, I didn’t have my RN, and I had went through a terrible automobile accident around ’95 which, compounded by years of working as a nurse, lifting patients, among many other things, later, manifested first as left shoulder pain….over the course of 10 years it progressed to neck pain, bilateral shoulder pain and upper back pain, limited range of motion (could not lift my arms above my shoulder level), I was beginning to have neuropathic issues, I couldn’t be in one position for any length of time, I couldn’t stand/walk for prolonged periods, I was limping, and more…I was in increasingly severe pain that over-the-counter options ceased helping and after a couple years when one of my doctors *finally* did an MRI — well, it was not good news. I had for different areas of stenosis (the channel through your vertabrae in which the nerve bundle/root passes narrows and begins compressing the nerves, leading to radiating pain, weakness, numbness, and much more…it can even lead to loss of bowel and bladder control. I also began randomly losing consciousness and falling (different issue from spine). A few other issues cropped up, much of it related to the issues with my back, some of it not. Regardless, not many places want to hire a liability who could fall out at any given time or someone on narcotics for chronic pain— I ended up totally disabled.

I live in a rather rural area, 20 minutes or so from my various doctors, but my car died almost 2 yrs ago and I don’t have any money to replace it. Last month I lost 20 pounds in 2 weeks. “are you on a diet?” — my doctor asked. No, the truth is I “Make too much” to qualify for medicaid or food stamps, frankly for any help, because the amount of money you can receive per month and still receive assistance is so incredibly low that, frankly, I have no idea how any who actually qualifies for assistance is actually making it, even with assistance. Anyway, my bills were a little high last month so when the food ran out 1/2 way through the month??? There was simply no way to replace it. I don’t have any family, I haven’t been back in this area for many years, so I don’t know anyone any longer — I don’t have a “support system”, none of my children are making it well enough to be able to help me, even if I asked them. I have no car to get to the food banks, there are no agencies with any kind of program to help out in this kind of situation in this area. The churches around here are overburdened because of the low wages and lack of jobs, they either stopped helping or, the ones that still do….run out of their monthly help ‘allotment’ within the first 10 days of the month — and either way you’d have to get to them.

I did everything as “right” as I could, under my life circumstances. I’m certain I probably could have done better, I’m not quite sure how, but I’m certain there were ways, decisions I could have made differently, etc…I’m also sure, beyond a shadow of a damn doubt, that I could have done much, much worse then I ultimately did, there are some folks who would be overdosed in an alley somewhere, with a needle sticking out of their arm, had they went through 1/10th of what I did. Life happens and it truly doesn’t matter how righteous you think you are, how hard you think you’ve worked, how sure you are that every good thing in your life is based upon your hard work, efforts and skill, instead of luck, chance, the fact that you were born into a family that was stable, loving, and financially secure, the fact that your family could afford to send you to college and you didn’t start your adult life with 65,000 in student loan debt…I could go on, but I won’t. If you are the latter in the scenarios I just described, you probably won’t recognize yourself in it anyway, such is the life of someone with a little privilege. There’s a line in a song that says something like ‘where you end usually depends upon where you start’ — how true it is.

Basically what these articles say is that statistically if you grew up poor, that’s the way you’re going to stay and if you grew up better off you are more likely to end up better off. (much has to do with family being able to provide educational opportunities or not). As far as income mobility in the US —

“In America, there is a strongly held conviction that with hard work, anyone can make it into the middle class. Pew recently found that Americans are far more likely than people in other countries to believe that work determines success, as opposed to other factors beyond an individual’s control. But this positivity comes with a negative side — a tendency to pathologize those living in poverty. Indeed, 60 percent of Americans (compared with 26 percent of Europeans) say that the poor are lazy, and only 29 percent say those living in poverty are trapped in poverty by factors beyond their control (compared with 60 percent of Europeans). …. Only .2 percent of those who began in the bottom quintile made it into the top 1 percent. In contrast, 82.7 percent of those who began in the top 1 percent remained in the top 10 percent a decade later.”

“When liberals complain about the 35-year rise in income inequality, conservatives sometimes answer that unequal outcomes are the price America has to pay for bounteous economic opportunity. That argument has gotten harder to make in recent years, as it turns out the U.S. lags most comparable nations — including France, Germany, and even Canada — when it comes to social mobility. The Horatio Alger ideal of young bootblacks (or their latter-day equivalents) rising to become captains of industry had much more plausibility during Alger’s lifetime (1832–1899) than it does today. “

Once my kids were grown, while I was still able to work, I had a handful of years where I did really okay for the first time in my life- which gave me the opportunity to pay off some old debt, pay off a car loan in record time, have a few ‘nice things’, put some money aside — I tried to do everything right. You know what, it doesn’t matter how right you try to do, if ‘shit happens’, if you have a serious medical issue arise, if your house burns down, if your dad dies and you have to come up with money for a funeral and all the related expenses, if one of a million kinds of emergencies happen — you can go from “Hey! Life is good look at all the wonderful things my *hard work* and bootstraps got me!” to “Alas and alack! I’m a check away from homelessness!” in 0.2 seconds.

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