This original post ran in June 2011 on the blog; it’s the type of deeply personal piece I hesitate to share anymore in this space. Yet, as I heard about Trump’s proposed budget plan, I was reminded of my own childhood. Working-class in a good year and downright poor in a bad year. The availability of arts programming in the schools and community are what made the difference in my life and opened up a world where I could dare to dream and do more. For many years, I was ashamed of my upbringing but I also know that my parents did the best that they could and I now understand that for my father, as one of 16 kids born in rural Arkansas, he was fighting a losing a battle. However, my parents managed to raise two kids with a little help who have both gone on to give back far more than we took (to use the language of the GOP). Poverty has a face and as someone who was able to move out of poverty, I have never forgotten where I came from. And now that I have a voice, I will use it to help anyone that I can. In this case, my thoughts are with our truly vulnerable who will truly suffer under the Trump regime.
I have a secret to share with you. Of course, the fact that I am putting it on this very public blog means it will no longer be a secret, but that is okay. I go through most of my days feeling like a fraud, a fake, an impostor. Oh, on the surface I look like your average college-educated middle-class person (do they really even exist anymore? Or is that the lie we tell ourselves because we can’t stand the idea that we are no longer in the middle but we didn’t rise to the top?). I have a job where to a large degree I have total autonomy, I live in a reasonable-sized home, have access to a car that is not a jalopy. That’s the sort of shit we see and assume that means folks are fine. Really, that is quite silly. In this economy there are people driving nice cars, hoping and praying the repo man doesn’t show up and who are crossing fingers and toes they can get their home loans modified. Yet, when we see these folks, we have no idea and again assume they are like us.
In the past week or so, there have been several instances both in my day-to-day offline life as well as my online life where it was assumed I was just like everyone else. In one instance, I actually had someone try to explain to me the lives of the poor; I nearly laughed but instead wore my mask of the middle class all the time feeling my guts churning and temper rising.
See, I may not emphasize it a great deal on this blog though I have shared this in the past, but I grew up poor. If it was a good year we were working class but really we were poor. Oh, my parents being young turned it into a fun game, but looking back, there is no mistaking the fact that we were poor. I am talking getting vittles at the food pantry poor; shit, I have only fairly recently started eating English muffins. Why? Because there was a period of time when I was a kid we ate a lot of them because that is what the pantry gave us. There was also the time the pantry gave us chocolate syrup and my folks scraped up enough cash to buy some ice cream so we could have a treat, only to discover that the chocolate syrup had expired (chocolate syrup gone bad has a smell you never forget). I can assure you in the 25 years since that incident I still remember it clear as day.
I also remember when we lost our apartment and moved into a homeless shelter for six months. It was transitional shelter run by Catholic Charities and two nuns who I imagine are long gone. I remember group meals with a host of characters and “shopping” for clothes from the donations that came in. Yeah, I am a card-carrying member of the Grew Up Poor Club and those lessons don’t ever leave you. I know another fellow blogger and Maine resident who had a similar upbringing and believe me, no matter how far away you are from that grinding poverty, it colors your life. Hell, I only recently stopped hoarding food though I will always buy toilet paper in bulk as I never ever want to have to wipe my ass with newspaper or scraps again.
That said, I must admit the level of classicism and assumptions that I see in my day-to-day life sometimes make me want to scream. I recently read this piece and it’s funny because while on paper I am squarely middle class. Never mind I am going bankrupt and my personal net worth is like negative two hundred thousand dollars plus but, because I present as a middle-class person, that is what I am treated like. The fact is in my personal financial life I am very much like the Cracked piece in part because when you do grow up and break free from the poverty it travels with you and you never quite leave it behind.
In my case I did finally make it to college, but I graduated with a shitload of debt and not nearly as much social capital as I really needed to advance my career. Turns out moving to Maine despite the low-paying gigs did a lot more for me professionally than I would have expected. It’s a lot easier to connect with folks when you live in a state with a small population. I truly doubt I would have landed my first Executive Director position at 31 had I stayed in Chicago since I didn’t have social capital. Yet in Maine, to some degree I got a do-over, and its been helpful yet most of us don’t get a do-over in this highly rigged game called life.
Here let me do a quick bit more updating than I did at the start. Like I said, the piece above appeared in 2011 and what appears above has pretty much only been updated for punctuation and grammar. But in the time it was written and the years before and shortly after, I worked with kids from poor (mostly white) families and I worked with old people (mostly white and with few or no family assistance or personal resources). As Trump plans to cut things like Meals On Wheels (which feeds the poor and housebound elderly) and as his cronies talk about how school meal programs don’t help kids (I know different from providing snacks in an afterschool program where kids sometimes missed many…or most meals at home due to poverty)…what he and his people say are lies. These kinds of programs aren’t dragging the country down. Maybe corporate subsidies and wars and the Defense Department play a role…not to mention huge tax breaks for the rich…but programs that feel the needy aren’t our problem. And if you think they are, YOU’RE the problem.
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