Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A Longish Discussion About Poverty, Personal Choice, and Circumstance

I've been poor for a long time, and I one would think I would be used to it. I never get used to it.

I grew up in a one-room house in the woods of Central Maine; it was built by my parents, with help from my grandfather, out of reclaimed lumber from someone's old barn. My parents had a vision for the land, and with several others built a land trust. Our property was at the end of a very long dirt driveway, so long that if we arrived home before the plow guy came to poke a hole we'd have to park our car at the end and hike in 1/3 of a mile.

I read a lot of books, because books are free entertainment. I read about Laura Ingalls Wilder and Anne of Green Gables. Their lives seemed a lot like mine: I lived closely with my family, spent a lot of time outside, and knew what it meant to haul water, and how to poop in an outhouse (pro tip: don't look too closely at the spiders in the corners. They eat the endless flies). My mom made all our food. Scratch bread, yogurt, and tofu. She grew sprouts in a mason jar and bought bulk from the co-op. My dad worked for the State and gardened for us in his off time. I played in the woods in all weather. I named the special areas around my home: the Clubhouse (a large boulder sheltered by drooping pine branches), King of the Mountain (a grassy hill), Big Stream and Little Stream (Big Stream had better bugs, Little Stream was seasonal).

I didn't know we were poor until I was a pre-teen, attending that great American leveling experience of middle school, when things like new clothes and store bought food became suddenly important.

Even as a single-parent college student I was better off than I am at this moment in time. Before I returned to school in 2001, I worked as a secretary at a mental health clinic in mid-coast Maine. That year I earned $19,000. I just filed my 2015 taxes this week, and between five jobs and one month of unemployment I earned a little over $18,000. I don't have to tell you that today's dollar doesn't go as far as a 2001 dollar. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that $19k of 2001 buying power would equal $25,428 in today's dollars.

The folks who would like to blame poor people for their problems would point to personal weaknesses for my lack of advancement. It's true that I chose to have a child out of wedlock, and also (sort of) true that I chose not to have a long term partnership that would have provided another stable source of income for our family. I often make decisions about finances based on short-term needs rather than long-term goals.  I smoke cigarettes. I studied humanities.

I have done a lot of things right, though, as well. I graduated from high school 11th in my class, and filled up my schedule with academic extracurriculars. I learned a trade (typing), which led to my earliest jobs. I started working when I was 14, and I worked the whole time I was in school. I've never had subsidized rent, though I've used food stamps to supplement my income. I was the first person in my family to get a 4 year college degree. I went on to grad school. I followed my dream of becoming a writer, because I naively thought that if I went with my dreams the money would follow.

Then I graduated, in 2008, into a market gouged by the financial collapse. I got really (unrelatedly?) sick, and it took about four more years to find a diagnosis. My ability didn't return to pre-sickness levels after my diagnosis. I'm half disabled, and working more than 40 hours in a week has become a failing endeavor, causing more illness and making me fall further behind.

Unfortunately nobody recognizes partial disability. I've subsisted with the help of my generous father and stepmom, food stamps, a gofundme campaign, and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Because of my childhood my DIY skills are amazing, and I am willing to go without a lot. But it's exhausting, and it's never enough.

This is what my parents hid so well from me, through their hippie idealism and careful world-building: the unending grind of poverty.  The unanticipated expense that knocks the whole precarious system spinning out of reach. The cost of having too little in your bank account. Rationing your prescriptions because you won't be able to afford the $5 copay until next week.  The raw knuckles of hand washing your clothes with dish soap. Brain constantly calculating the bank account balance, deciding which bills to pay and which to put off. The panic when your only pair of work shoes breaks or the aging car needs more service. The weight gain from eating cheap, filling food. The constant fantasizing about the day the squeeze will end and I will be able to wear clothes that fit, eat food that is fresh and healthy, pay for my prescriptions when they're due, and have some money in savings. I'll let you know when that happens.

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