My childhood was spent as a poor kid. Deep in poverty. My father was an auto and body mechanic who had problems with collecting on bills, allowing people to take advantage of him, and my mother had severe undiagnosed depression that kept her housebound and anxiety-filled most days. Together they earned less than five figures a year total for most of my childhood years, with a family of five.
While my childhood would be viewed by most as “normal” from the outside, on the inside it was anything but. We had clothing, although it was mostly hand-me-downs and garage sale finds. We had a house, albeit one that my maternal grandmother financed so we wouldn’t end up homeless. And we had we had our smiles.
That smile was a façade for our fears and the anxiety that came along with being financially unstable.
Those days were literally feast or famine.
I didn’t know how poor we were until one night when my mother had been crying for hours. I asked her what was for dinner and she said “Nothing. There is nothing.” As much as I probably should’ve appreciated her honesty, it wasn’t something that should ever be said to a child. Her fear and anxiety over being able to provide then coursed through me. Those words continued to haunt me through my teen years and even into my adulthood with a myriad of issues, but that’s not what this story is about.
This story is about the five lessons I learned from living in poverty and how I’ve come to realize that being middle class now has taught me so much less.
Lesson 1- Money might not buy happiness, but it can buy food.
Being poor is uncertainty in many ways. Not the least is food insecurity. Today, one in six families don’t have enough to eat. I can’t say if it was worse back in the 70s and 80s, but it wasn’t better from my perspective.
Food insecurity often isn’t about having nothing to eat but it’s about not knowing how much or when you will have food to eat. When I was a child we pooled food resources with my mother’s sister and my grandmother. They raised chickens, rabbits, and at one time, I believe a goat for milk. Yes, the first two animals were for food. But even with that, there were only so many of them and we got parts, not wholes of the animals.
I remember many nights of having a fried egg for dinner. One egg. Nothing else. I also remember that normal meals for us were macaroni with tomato soup (which isn’t as bad as it sounds, but it’s not nutritious either) with a piece of bread and butter and one can of green beans for five people. I’ve figured out the calorie content of that meal… 287. And probably more like 200 for us children and mother because our father always received a double serving of the main course and sometimes an additional piece of bread but never the kids. Even if we expressed hunger, we were quickly dismissed and sent back outside or to our room to play.
Ultimately, our parents couldn’t stand to hear the pleas for more, so they chose not to.
Lesson 2- Many people with limited financial means make questionable financial decisions and extravagant purchases out of the need to “show off.”
My parents, mostly my father, made extremely odd and sometimes very selfish purchases of unnecessary and expensive items. We never had new cars. Being a mechanic, my father pieced together decent cars, most of the time. They had their issues, including I don’t remember any one of them having air conditioning. And if it did, there were many excuses why we couldn’t use it including the cost of gas, which was about $.36 in the 70s and $1.19 in the 80s, so not extreme, but still, a tank did take an investment, at least to my father and gas was to be used wisely. Tires were purchased at the junkyard and parts sourced from the same to save money.
But one Christmas, I believe 1982, he purchased a Commodore 64 “for the family” and then proceeded to invite almost everyone in the town — all 200 people at that time — over to “see his new toy.” That computer probably cost more than he made all month, $595, but when people would oooh and ahhh at the piece of equipment he was so happy and seemed to believe he’d made it by having this one item in our lives.
I remember that Christmas being a good one, but I figure that might have been due to a new credit card in hand. Which was a lesson being poor taught me, too. Credit isn’t always good or needed. Keep finances in check and don’t overspend. Limit and monitor cards and lines and you’ll always be better off.
But why do those living in poverty spend this money that might be best spent on basics — food, shelter, clothing?
“The poor are skeptical about their supposed opportunities, and the possibility of any radical change in their lives…Therefore, they focus on the here and now, on living their lives as pleasantly as possible, and on celebrating when the occasion demands it.” (Interculturalmeanderings.wordpress.com, Banjeree & Duflo)
This quote totally summarizes the mindset of those living in poverty to me. My father believed that if he had it, he had to spend it and why not on something that would impress and possibly make himself feel good. This is why we ended up with many odd items but ate meagerly at dinner. That $595 for that computer would have paid for several weeks of food, adding in some nutritious fruits and vegetables that were rarely on the menu.
Lesson 3-They always had their personal vice fulfilled.
This one has been a major reason for me being in therapy. I know, that sounds odd, but here’s the deal…
They always had cigarettes, even if we didn’t have food.
I’m not sure what more I can say about that, but I guess research has something to say.
In the U.S., people living below the poverty level and people having lower levels of educational attainment have higher rates of cigarette smoking than the general population (Cdc.gov)
I still can’t believe how much money my parents have spent on cigarettes over the years. They both started smoking around 1964. If their pack a day habit costs approximately $2292 a year, then over twenty years of smoking, if that money was put into investments instead of burning it up in smoke and laid there in ashes — literally — they would accumulate over $100,000, figuring a 7 percent return (Thebalance.com). Imagine that for five-plus decades…that could be well in the $200,000 range that they could have for retirement. But nope. To them that high was more important that saving money, the health of themselves or their children, or providing the basics of life.
And I’ve seen that unhealthy habit transfer to other family members, too. Although I was able to get out of it and have never smoked, and never will, I think addiction is somewhat chemically ingrained to almost make them impervious to what’s right and wrong when it comes to this. This addiction has made me cautious of what I put into my body.
As a child I knew that it was wrong that we had no food and they had their cigarettes, and I still know it.
Lesson 4- Motivation and acceptance issues.
There were days when my father didn’t work. Weeks. Months. No, poverty does not make people lazy. No, poverty doesn’t make them not want to work, but when you don’t get out of poverty by working, it can be defeating. Poverty does tend to lead people to depression, which can lead to poorer health decisions and health issues. And simply, those in poverty tend to work in conditions that people with education and means do not.
From my experience those with less means tend to be more accepting of people, in general, there are of course exceptions, but really in our town, the people with more money were more closed off and stuck to themselves. I saw this many times. My parents would let people sleep in our basement who just wandered into town. And sometimes those people would take advantage of my parents, but it seemed my parents almost enjoyed it. They invested in schemes that never panned out. They purchased lots of junk that they never needed to fill some hole inside of them. And although I think they thought they were doing the right thing, it really only transferred the wealth in their small circle of friends.
I have taken a similar vision about people, accepting all and finding purpose in serving others. But when it comes to my money, I don’t put it into things. We have a small house with only things we truly love in it. I don’t accept donations or hand-me-downs anymore, but selectively choose clothing and furniture based on the item being the right piece. Gifts are either used or put into a container and re-gifted to someone else. I figure, if it wasn’t meant to be mine, maybe it was meant to be someone else’s. We put our money into our children’s futures, our retirement, and events, travel, and experiences.
Also, after living in poverty, I have an acceptance of the fact that I won’t ever be rich. I don’t go for get rich quick schemes, which many in poverty refuse or decline to see how their money can be better spent and want that quick high of having money in their pocket.
“Twenty-eight percent of Americans who earn less than $30,000 a year play the lottery at least once a week. They spend $412 a year on tickets. (cbsnews.com)”
I play the lottery once a year, usually when someone else is going to get the tickets and is only asking for $5–10. I use it as a carrot. I can only do this…when…I get 5000 words written today. And if that goal is fulfilled, the possibility happens. But I don’t dream about winning. My realism from being poor makes me appreciate what I have.
And although I suffer from seasonal depression, I face my mental health issues and have gotten help. Being poor doesn’t allow for healthcare and up until age twenty-one, when I married my husband, I never had insurance. So having some means and understanding that putting money into quality insurance is important.
Lesson 5- Teachers, school staff, clergy, group leaders, and even doctors ignored my circumstances to my detriment.
Granted, I don’t blame those people for looking the other way. But I do find concern that this probably still happens far more often than we believe. For instance, the “No Child Left Behind” program sounds good, but it ignores socioeconomic factors.
In many states, large numbers of schools with needy students have ended up labeled as “failing” under No Child left Behind. State officials may respond to their apparent failure by cutting resources for public schools. Or officials may simply lower standards for all schools in the state (scholars.org)
Not only are poor students more likely to not have good nutrition that hinders learning, but also they don’t have the support mechanisms for doing better either. Their parents may not have advanced degrees or have education themselves or see value in having them.
When it came to medical personnel, when we did go to the doctor, they pretty much ignored our circumstances and acted like I wasn’t underweight and my sister didn’t have teeth issues. If they’d have asked, maybe my parents would have at least accepted help.
But my father was too proud to ask for help and my mother was admonished if she even suggested finding assistance. This definitely showed me that pride can be a downfall. We all need help every once in a while. Pride is a universal factor unrelated to your financial status, but when you don’t have money it’s a double-whammy in that you won’t accept help, but you’d never ask for it anyway.
I still hate seeing my parents living in poverty. They have separated and live independently now. My mother accepts assistance because she has to. I talk about living through a gray divorce in this story. https://medium.com/@julesdixon/the-black-and-white-of-gray-divorce-surviving-parental-divorce-as-an-adult-ca8087386251.
I myself am middle class. I have two Bachelor degrees as a first-generation graduate. I was a stay-at-home mom for most of my adult life. I don’t wish I’d lived a different life, but I do wish that so many children didn’t have to face the same lessons I’ve already learned.
CBSnews.com. Who Buys Lottery Tickets? Those Who Can Least Afford Them. Retrieved August 4, 2019 from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/who-buys-lottery-tickets-those-who-can-least-afford-them/
CDC.gov. Cigarette Smoking and Tobacco Use Among People of Low Socioeconomic Status. Retrieved August 4, 2019 from https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/disparities/low-ses/index.htm.
Interculturalmeanderings.wordpress.com. “Foolish Spending Habits” of the Poor-Now explained by Economists. Retrieved August 4, 2019 from https://interculturalmeanderings.wordpress.com/2015/06/24/foolish-spending-habits-of-the-poor-now-explained-by-economists/.
Scholars.org. To Help Disadvantaged Children Learn, We Must Acknowledge that Poverty Hampers Education. Retrieved August 4, 2019 from https://scholars.org/brief/help-disadvantaged-children-learn-we-must-acknowledge-poverty-hampers-education
Thebalance.com. How Much Money Does Smoking Cost You. Retrieved August 4, 2019 from https://www.thebalance.com/how-much-money-does-smoking-cost-you-4143324.