Something interesting happened to me yesterday.
I was talking to some student colleagues about the nature of being employed by the state. Among the students, there was a future nurse, a future teacher, and a future accountant. Our discussion began as a benign conversation about retirement. I joked that because I got such a late start in life, I don't have much of a retirement plan to count on. "I once saw a billboard on the 10 freeway that said your in-laws are not a retirement plan," I said to my students. "So that sucks."
Our conversation evolved into stories of the dynamics between family and finances, hand-outs and hand-ups. Anyone who knows me knows that my politics lean liberal, so of course, I dipped into my usual arguments for living wages and universal healthcare, etc, etc, etc. "I'll never be okay with letting hardworking people go without having their basic needs met," I said. Not an unusual comment from me at all, but it's where the conversation went next that later had such a profound effect on me.
My personal history is pretty much an open book---I think that's true of most writers. I've never hidden the fact that I was raised incredibly poor. Being poor is as much a part of my identity as being female is. It's as much of a part of me as being queer or being hard-of-hearing or having a lifelong struggle with my weight. But until I started to detail some of my experiences yesterday, I don't think I ever realized just how deep the river of my poverty trauma runs.
Poverty and Me
Whenever I talk about my experiences with poverty, something odd happens to me, and it's hard to explain. I don't FEEL the experiences in the retelling. It's like I merely report them. Almost like a journalist chronicling a series of events. I add emotional words to increase the impact of my stories, but I do not resonate with what I'm saying. It's my history, and these are my stories, but they always feel more fictional than true.
I'm sure this emotional disconnect is why, to this day, I've never written a story about characters dealing with poverty. On some level, I need to feel what my characters feel in order to make them real, and I have no interest in feeling poverty ever again---even vicariously through a fictional character.
If you've experienced (or are currently experiencing) chronic, overwhelming poverty, I think you know the feeling I'm talking about. I'm not talking about the stress of having money worries every now and then. I'm not talking about being broke. And I'm certainly not talking about the Mitt Romney or Barack Obama nostalgic versions of "going without" that we had to endure during the 2012 debates.
I'm talking about real poverty. I'm talking about the heavy cloak of shame and worthlessness that drapes your slumped shoulders because you're being evicted...again. I'm talking about waking up in the morning and enjoying those first five minutes of peace that come before the familiar knot in your stomach wakes up and reminds you that you can't afford to get to work that day. I'm talking about the way you learn to live with the disgusted looks and insulting remarks of those who only know this one singular thing about you--that you're poor.
The Identity of Lack
Being poor becomes such a deep part of your identity because society never misses an opportunity to remind you that it defines you.
Filling out a form that asks for your income? Just go straight to the $0-$whatever category because you know that's the single most consistent piece of data about you. It's certainly not what you enter on the address line--more often than not, that's just a work of fiction. It's not your address; it belongs to whomever was kind enough to let you crash at their house or use their mailbox so the electric company could send you that $10 refund they owe you. You'll need it for a bus pass if you can't get your car running by next week.
Were you lucky enough to be included in some gathering of wealthy folks? If it's a gathering to acknowledge the generosity they bestowed upon you in the form of a financial gift, that's not too horrible. You are genuinely grateful for whatever they've given you, so you let them parade you around as their little human pat-on-the-back. No real harm there. But if it's a gathering of rich people loose in the wild, you know that you and your poverty will be a source of entertainment for them. And as long as you get a hearty meal out of the deal, you can't really complain. Or, at least, you won't complain.
People love a good bootstraps story, but only after you've traded your boots in for loafers. You'll never be seen as a hard worker UNTIL after that hard work has paid off. And since you know that hard work has never translated to success for you, you get used to hearing "if you only managed your money better" or "you should go back to school," as if having one more place you can't afford to get to is going to somehow magically improve your life.
There is good news, however. The good news is that if you've experienced THAT kind of poverty, it doesn't take much to feel pretty damn rich. With a ton of good fortune and a whole lot of white skin, I've managed to carve out a nice middle-class existence for myself these days. Sometimes, when I'm buying something that I don't really need, I'm not kidding, I feel like a millionaire. When my paycheck comes and there's still some money in my checking account from my previous paycheck, I feel like I've finally got my shit together.
But you know what? It's easy to get your shit together when someone pays you a reasonable wage. I don't work nearly as hard now as I used to for a minimum wage, and yet, I suspect many people think I do. How else could I have gone from far too many payday loans and expired car tags to a house with a working air conditioner? Everyone knows that your paycheck matches your hard work, drive, and determination.
Only, it doesn't.
Your paycheck matches whatever narrative your paycheck-giver has constructed about you. And this is why I cannot tolerate the demonizing of poor people. This is why I argue so heatedly with so many conservative loved ones about hand-up programs. They see an entitled, lazy person who takes from those who deserve it more because they worked for it more. I see me. I see what a single hand-up at the right time has the opportunity to create. I see how not being defined by what I lack has given me the luxury to redefine myself by what I want to be.
And I don't ever want to be like those people who looked at me with such a deep disdain for doing nothing more than trying to live without.