My mom was already ashamed and sorry. She deserved to also eat pie.
“They’re buying steak and lobster with food stamps!”
Every few months this headline, or one like it, finds its way around conservative publications, into political pundit shows, and onto senate floors. A relic of the “Welfare Queen” stories of the ’80s, the fear of poor people squandering the charity of hard-working American tax dollars leads to countless classist memes, reactionary petitions, and tighter restrictions on the ways in which poor Americans are allowed to live.
When I hear these words, I don’t think of lobster or steak, I think of Boston cream pie. A Boston cream pie was what my mother came home with one evening when I was in the 6th grade. She walked in the house after another evening of working late and placed a paper grocery bag on the dining table.
“Kids!” she announced excitedly, “I’ve got a treat for you!”
My brother and I gathered around the table as she produced a cake from the grocery bag. “Ever have a Boston cream pie?” she asked.
I was furious with her.
By 6th grade I had already figured out that we were poor and that it was a moral failure on our part. We were defective, and therefore unable to afford the things that normal families could afford. My friends had snack cabinets full of treats that they could just reach into whenever they felt like it. We had no phone, often no electricity, and if there was a package of ramen in our cupboard, it was a very good day. I wasn’t quite sure why, but I knew that this was all my mom’s fault. She had married the wrong man, she had gotten the wrong job, she hadn’t saved enough or scraped enough or worked hard enough. But we had no food in our fridge and I was pretty sure this Boston cream pie was why.
By 6th grade I had already figured out that we were poor and that it was a moral failure on our part.
And it wasn’t even pie; it’s a cake. I was so embarrassed and ashamed and angry to see it sitting there on our table.
Nonetheless, at my mom’s insistence, I sat at the table with my mother and brother to eat some of it, resentfully choking down small bites and picking at the cream filling while my brother devoured his in seconds. My mother slowly lifted each bite to her mouth, closing her eyes as she chewed, making small sighing noises. She talked about the first time she had ever had Boston cream pie as a kid, when she was about our age, on vacation with her parents. “It was so indulgent,” she remembered.
I didn’t want any part of it. I didn’t want my mom to enjoy any part of our poor existence. I wanted her to be ashamed and sorry.
I didn’t understand that my mom already was ashamed and sorry. I didn’t know that she walked around ashamed and sorry every day. I didn’t see that she stood in food bank and church lines ashamed and sorry. I didn’t see that she went to holiday collection services ashamed and sorry. I didn’t see that she took us to our free dental appointments ashamed and sorry. I didn’t see that every time she passed over those food stamps to try to feed us she was ashamed and sorry. I didn’t realize that every message that had surrounded me and told me that we were poor because my mom was a bad mom who couldn’t take care of us had not only surrounded my mom, but had filled her lungs and rested in her heart. I understood only what the pundits had wanted me to see — that she was a poor woman who was squandering what she already didn’t deserve.
I didn’t want my mom to enjoy any part of our poor existence.
And that is what we are saying, when we talk disdainfully about poor people buying lobster and steak, or nice phones, or new clothes. We are saying, you are not sorry and ashamed enough. You do not hate your poor existence enough. Because when you are poor, you are supposed to take the help that is never enough and stretch it so you have just enough misery to get by. Because when you are poor you are supposed to eat ramen every day and you are supposed to know that every bite of that nutrition-less soup is your punishment for bad life decisions. Your kids are supposed to be mocked at school for their outdated clothes — how else will they know to not end up like you when they grow up?
And for heaven’s sake, the last thing you should be allowed to do is to take one evening with your kids to sit at a table and eat a dish of pure indulgence in the hopes that your children will have a few minutes to feel the same way you did when you were a kid and you weren’t ashamed to exist.
I look back on this time and I do feel shame. Not for being poor, but for allowing the judgement of others to dehumanize both me and my mom. I’m ashamed because as I sat at that table, I didn’t taste a single bite of that Boston cream pie. I haven’t had Boston cream pie since, and I doubt I ever will, because the opportunity for it to taste like indulgence and humanity and normality has been lost, and now it can only taste like regret.
And that is all that we accomplish, when we shame poor people for daring to live for a moment like they are not at the mercy of others. We deny them the opportunity to live like actual human beings worthy of dignity and respect. Everyone should be able to bring home a steak or a lobster, or a Boston cream pie, once in a while.