People who have never been poor love to judge those living in poverty. I know, because I used to do it too.
I never expected to wind up here. We thought we had done everything right.
We had money in our 401k’s, investment portfolios, cryptocurrency holdings, and I walked around wearing a wedding ring that cost more than my car was worth. We were financially privileged and took every second of it for granted.
We had no idea how quickly things would come crashing down in 2020.
It’s so easy to point fingers.
I used to look at poor people with pity and blame them for their situation. Without even knowing anything about the details of their life, I judged them. Doing so saved me the burden of recognizing any of the systemic issues or taking action to help anyone in need. It wasn’t my cross to bear, right?
My assumptions of their circumstances and condemnation of their life decisions kept me securely inside my bubble of suburban privilege.
Besides, no one ended up poor and living in poverty at no fault of their own. They should just get a second job, a third if they have to. Pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Can’t they just step up and figure it out?
There were so many things I failed to recognize while I was living the good life. No one talked about the nuances of poverty, at least no one living in my neighborhood.
I didn’t consider the people who lost everything because of crippling medical conditions, business failures, car accidents, or a global pandemic overwhelming the world.
I just saw weakness, character flaws, a lack of mental strength, poor work ethic, or bad decision-making skills.
I saw symptoms of poverty and baselessly judged the individual.
Then you live it.
It’s a funny thing society has dubbed financial security as “financial health.” because when you’re living in poverty, it seems like such a silly term. No one who is living in poverty wants to hear about financial health. We just want access to healthcare and maybe some food for our kids. It reminds me of the people who brought my best friend green smoothies while she was actively dying from terminal cancer. They would tout the miraculous benefits and her and I would laugh so hard we cried after they left.
I had no idea just how overwhelmingly crippling the threat of homelessness, food scarcity, and limited access to medical care could make your life. The walls start closing in on you and you don’t talk about it for fear of becoming a societal outcast.
I didn't understand until we were forced to drain our 401k’s, sell our only functioning vehicle, and pawn my wedding ring for 10% of what we paid for it. Even then, I didn’t really understand poverty. We were so damn privileged to have that money to get us by for a few months.
Once it ran out, we felt the full weight of our circumstances. We were poor. My husband and I found jobs but even with our incomes combined, we were still below the poverty level. We were working harder than we ever had and making less than we’d ever made.
This was 2020.
Do you want to know what poverty feels like?
Imagine a 20-pound weight plate balanced on your head all day long. Now add in the anxiety you would feel if you walked into a job interview and your arch-nemesis was sitting across from you — ready to start firing questions your way. Now add in the physical hunger of not eating for several days.
That’s poverty, at least for me anyway.
It’s parking your mostly broke-down car in the garage at all times because you worry it might get repossessed from your driveway. It’s having to say a prayer before you turn the key and holding your breath until the engine comes to life. It’s realizing you can’t park your car anywhere unless you sit inside of it because again, it might get repossessed since you’ve fallen 4 months behind on your car payment even though you only have 5 payments left until it’s paid off. It’s knowing that car needs thousands of dollars in repairs and sounds like absolute trash every time you step on the pedal. You try to hide your face behind a big pair of cheap sunglasses to avoid the awkward stares from your neighbors.
They know you’re broke, but you try to keep whatever shreds of dignity you have left.
It’s not being able to explain why you wound up in the hospital for nearly a week with sepsis. You don’t want to see their looks of pity as you explain that you couldn’t pay your insurance premium and hoped your kidney infection would just go away on its own. It’s being on your death bed with a 105-degree fever before your husband has to carry you to the emergency room because you still refuse to go.
It’s receiving that $28,000 hospital bill a month later and wishing you would have just stayed home and died.
It’s the look on your son’s face after you tell him he can no longer play the sport he loves because the organization he plays for won’t agree to a payment plan. Besides, you can’t afford the gas money to get him there.
It’s worrying every time you see an electric company vehicle that it might be headed to your house to turn your power off…again. Last time you sent your kids to grandma’s while you and your husband frantically sold enough of your clothes on Facebook Marketplace to pay the overdue bill the following day. But how would you explain it to your kids this time around when there was nothing left to sell?
Poverty is silent.
It’s not being able to talk about it because you know everyone would find a way to question how and why you didn’t have a bigger safety net to account for a global pandemic.
Bringing it up to your spouse is painful and only makes it more real. Maybe if you both just avoid talking about the weight of your circumstances you can enjoy a few peaceful minutes together? You know they are doing everything they can by working sun-up to sun-down six days a week, and you don’t want to burden them with your worries on top of their own.
You are virtually schooling three kids, working part-time, and trying to find gigs on the side. Eventually, you start writing online after your kids go to bed from 9 pm to midnight, and again from 4 to 7 am. You pretend you’re doing it all for fun because real writers don’t do it for the money — right? You write about sex because you love sex, but most days your new reality of living with crippling fear coupled with only getting a few hours of sleep every night leaves you feeling anything but sexy.
Your friends won’t understand. Their jobs were spared and they have no concept of going without. Plus, you’re embarrassed, or more accurately — humiliated that your life has come to this.
You know they would talk about you behind your back, pick apart every single financial decision you’ve made, and start telling you exactly where you should have done things differently.
It’s knowing that if anyone really knew how bad things were they might not talk to you anymore. Your suburban mom friends would start avoiding you because being associated with you might not be good for their social standing.
After all, they would never allow something like this to happen to their family.
It’s keeping as much as you can from your children, knowing the tears you quickly wipe away don’t always go unnoticed. They can’t understand why you struggle to get through the silly good morning song you‘ve sung to wake them since they were babies. Or why you immediately go to your room and shut the door after singing it. You try to keep your cries silent, but they notice your red eyes, dark circles, and that permanently worried expression on your face.
It’s telling them they don’t have a choice but to eat the unhealthy school food that’s being dropped off at your doorstep. While other parents complain about the food on your local Facebook mom’s page, you cry happy tears every time the bags arrive. For your family, it’s either bad nutrition or no nutrition at all. Eventually, they notice those tears of gratitude in your eyes when you thank the lunch ladies who drop them off twice a week. You overhear their not-so-secret pact to pretend they love school lunches, especially the gross pre-packed grilled cheese sandwiches. They just want you to stop looking so sad.
It’s knowing you are still better off than most.
It’s the overwhelming, crushing, and painful stress of all the things mentioned above and then some. But most importantly, it’s knowing that so many people have even less than you do.
But cultivating a grateful attitude doesn’t stop the bill collectors, repo companies, or keep the lights on.
It’s knowing you’ve done nearly nothing in your lifetime to help those in need and feeling the bittersweet sting of that particular brand of karma. Vowing that once you get out from under the crushing weight of your own situation, you will help others find their way out too.
It’s knowing that sharing your struggle might sound like you’re asking for pity or attention, but you’re actually asking for neither. Your only hope is that your words might reach someone who is similarly struggling in silence with a battle they feel like they can’t talk about. You just want them to know they aren’t alone.
The truth is, no one saw 2020 coming.