When I was in my early twenties, I learned how to ignore a growling stomach. This is a life skill that has continued to be beneficial, and one I’m sure many people have, but nobody really talks about. I learned it when I was first on my own with my two kids living in an apartment that I hadn’t paid for because I didn’t have an income. I was poor, but I didn’t like to admit it for two reasons. First, I clearly had help paying for the place I was living, and second, it’s hard to admit you’re poor in a country that treats poverty like a crime. But, I was. I know I was because there were days when my kids ate three meals, and I didn’t. They always came first, and I always came second because that’s what being an adult is sometimes. Eggs, peanut butter, and milk stretch further if you’re only feeding them to two instead of three. So I learned the tricks: drink a lot of water, chew gum, buy a pack of skittles and eat one every now and then, stay very busy.
I’m sure there were people who would have helped if I had asked. There were even a few who helped without me asking. But at the time I was still terrified of letting people know I’d left my marriage (I had friends that wouldn’t find out for half a decade), and I didn’t want to be viewed as one of the single moms on food stamps that people love to sneer at. I knew I couldn’t afford child care for two kids on minimum wage, so finding work was difficult. As happens in most cases, the things that saved me were my connections. A friend had a job with an internet startup, and he put in a good word for me. The company was based in a different state, so I got to work from home, but also eat more regularly.
I was thinking about this today while seeing how long I could make ten dark chocolate covered raisins last during my lunch break. It’s an old habit, an old game. I’ve come a long way since I first ventured out into the world on my own, but I’m still far from flush with cash. I consider myself lower-middle-class, or maybe upper-lower-class. I won’t be buying a house anytime soon, and I wouldn’t be driving a car that wasn’t full of mold, and lacking a working heater without it being gifted to me. But I can afford to save, and spend. I also have a support system that a lot of people don’t have, a safety net of sorts. I’m incredibly blessed, but if that net were to break, I’d be back to rationing skittles.
Before my previously mentioned raisin snack, I had decided to take a walk around the block to stretch my legs, and remember what air that isn’t being recycled smells like. Passing a group of people on their smoke break, I overheard one of them say something about needing to get to the store before next week when all of the lazy food stamp people got their checks. It stabbed me straight in my gut. People like this were the ones who stopped me from asking for help when I needed it. I was so worried, so scared of being seen as poor, or begging, or unworthy, that instead of using the resources that existed for people like me, I just didn’t eat. How much harm do we do to ourselves, to our neighbors with the way we talk about those who are without. We assume we know. We judge, and we look at them with disgust. We see ourselves as above, even when we’re exactly the same. Sometimes I see a mom at the store, and I see her basket full of eggs, and peanut butter, and I look for the pack of gum, or the bag of skittles. The signs that she’s not eating so that her children can. I look for them, and then I wonder if she’s internalized the messages about poverty that are all over the consumer driven, capitalist media we all consume.
We live in a country where being poor
feels like is a crime. If people are hungry, it’s because they aren’t working hard enough. If people are cold, it’s because they’re lazy. We need big, and better, and more because it’s a sign not just of our success, but of our moral superiority. That boat in the driveway doesn’t just say, “I like to fish,” it also says, “I’m more sanctified than the person down the street who can’t afford to buy their own milk.” It’s the danger of the Evangelical prosperity gospel rolled up with the danger of the myth of bootstrap success.
I’m where I am now because I had people who shared my genetics who were also in a position to help me. I didn’t make it on my own. Had I been on my own, I wouldn’t have made it. This is a thing I recognize when I think about where I was, and where I am. I’m not alone in this. Not even a little. For some people it’s a million dollars to start a business, for some it’s a loan to get through college, for others it’s six months of rent paid up front to give them time to get on their feet. Whatever it is though, it’s privilege, and it’s something that I do not take for granted. I don’t perpetuate the myth of hard work, because it’s absolutely false, and while I do work hard, it isn’t the thing that saved me. “But for the grace of God, go I,” is one way of putting it, but another is– “But for the privilege of having a family who could help me out when I was at my lowest, would that be me.”