I thought I would just tell my story. I grew up in Northwest Florida. My father got out of the Air Force as a conscientious objector when I was 5 years old, right at the end of the Vietnam Conflict. I have always wondered if his decision was prompted by the fact that my Uncle, who was an MIA, was left in a POW camp when the US pulled out of Vietnam.
My parents had 5 kids that were aged five and under when my father got out of the Air Force. The decision he made pretty much sealed our economic status: I grew up POOR. Poor as in not being able to buy shoes even though the soles were gone. Poor as in not being able to afford to get new glasses.
I always have been very smart. My mom told me a story recently that my kindergarten teacher told her that they had never seen a student like me: I could read before I got to kindergarten but I couldn’t hold a pencil or scissors. Back in the day such poor dexterity would have triggered all sorts of special ed tests, but they didn’t have anything to explain my reading ability (sounds familiar to me now..). I was classified as gifted, and went to the Learning Center (a place for gifted kids) once a week from 3rd – 5th grade.
But I didn’t go to college. I didn’t realize it was an option – I thought it was too expensive. (There were some other social issues, but I don’t want to go into that right now). So I did what lots of poor girls do: I got married. I had kids. I got divorced.
My brother convinced me to go to college. He said the government would pay for it. I was amazed to find out he was right! Why hadn’t anyone told me about that before? The further I got into college and could see how there are institutional barriers that prevent poor people from getting lots of things: education, medical care, simple respect, the angrier I got. My undergrad degree is in Information Studies, and learning how to refine my information seeking skills has continued to open doors for me. It was instrumental in pulling me out of poverty.
This entire time we were still so poor. I supported the kids with sporadic child support on about $10K a year. I do not know how I did it. Lots of Hunt’s tomato sauce. I hate that stuff! We hardly ate meat until my town got a Super Walmart, even then I only bought it when it was marked down. I would go on dates to eat and order pasta so I could bring it home to the kids so we could have something different. I worked two jobs until I came to work for EMC. And just made it work.
I’m lucky. I got a degree, and was able to get insurance for my kids. I can afford to give them anything they need, and most things they want. We never go hungry (I think we actually all have issues with food since we went without for so long). I am also lucky I had friends who would not allow me to feel sorry for myself, who constantly reminded me to put the kids first. They would chastise me if I got down and did stupid things to numb the pain that poverty brings. I would never have made it without them loving me enough to yell at me.
Here are my action items for those of you who are fortunate enough to have never lived in poverty:
- Most people do not choose to be poor. If they do, you may be surprised at their reasons
- Food Stamps and Welfare are a joke. If you are willing to give up 2 days of your time a month and all of your private information to get that help, then you are in dire straights. The CEOs who caused the banking mess get the good welfare, the poor folks get screwed on this one!
- Don’t give stuff you wouldn’t eat to the food drives. People only go get handouts if they are in dire straights and it takes a toll on your soul. No one wants Spam (unless they are in Hawaii maybe)
- Sponsor one of the Christmas tree kids, and spoil that kid as much as you can. They won’t expect it, their name was probably put in by a social worker. It may be the first time they ever get a brand new toy in a box!!! (yes speaking from experience on that one)
- Be nice to people, even if they have turned to drugs or alcohol to numb their pain. It is painful to be poor, to work your butt off, and to still just stay poor. Don’t make it worse!
- Don’t assume people are poor because they do drugs or drink too much. I couldn’t afford either one!