illions of Americans are born into poverty. They’re your friends, family, employees, the people you say hi to every day, the folks who make your food and your coworkers. Even with all of those human connections, people just don’t seem to understand what’s it is like to be born into and stuck in poverty. I guess it’s not sexy to talk about going to work hungry or deciding between your light bill or paying your rent.
You see I was born into American poverty. My mom was a single mentally ill mother and my dad abandoned us when we were kids. By the time I was a teenager, I was homeless and lived in a shelter. So I think I know a little about poverty.
So what’s it like to live in poverty? It sucks! I mean for real. It’s bad! For me living in poverty is like being stuck in quicksand. The more you try to climb out of it and reach for that flimsy tree limb, the deeper you sink into it. With a long and consistent streak of good decisions, you can get you out of it. However, one bad choice could keep you and your children in it for generations. Here’s how poverty works.
You’re a kid who goes to a bad school, in a bad neighborhood because that’s all your parents could afford. After all, your parents are poor. That’s if you are lucky enough to have both parents. Your school is overcrowded, underfunded, full of outdated books and the building is falling apart. The teachers don’t care because they think your parents don’t care. You know your parents care. They just can’t make it to the parent-teachers conferences or Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings because they’re working at their low wage jobs without benefits. If your parents take a day off, they can’t get paid for that day. Because your parents’ shifts change every week, they can’t check on you or your homework. If your parents could check your homework, they can’t check it because they don’t understand your homework. It’s the new math and teaching to the test thing.
There is no food in the house, the bills aren’t paid and your parents are stressed out. You see it all. You feel powerless, because you’re a child. You see how life’s unfair, you’re hurt and now you’re struggling in school. The school through your IEPs decide you have to go to the resource room. Going to the resource room takes you out of your other classes and that means you’re behind in your other subjects. Now you need private tutoring. You can’t get private tutoring because mom and dad can’t afford it. Your school offers tutoring on the weekends. Awesome, but the school bus doesn’t run on the weekends. Sadly, your parents can’t take you to tutoring. They can’t take you because they have to save gas to go to their low wage jobs. It’s even worse if your parents don’t have a car. Taking the public bus? HA! The public bus costs money and takes one hour and thirty minutes to get to your school. Let’s not forget some bus lines don’t run on the weekend.
Another month comes and goes where your parents have to once again decide between paying the light bill, buying food or dodging the landlord until their next pay-day. The politicians who scapegoat poor people are wondering why the school is failing, why are your parents failing you and why you’re failing bad poor person. You’re dealing with all of this and at the same time you’re expected to score the same on standardized tests as students from wealthier communities. The students from wealthier communities are only five miles away from you however, they have computers at every desk, clean buildings, new books, teachers who care, active parents, transportation and the ability to pay for private tutoring.
With just the right amount of luck and hard work, you make it out of high school. Everyone says college is to key to success so you’re going to college. That’s only if, according to the financial aid office, you take out $20,000 each semester in student loans. You get loans because your parents can’t afford to pay your tuition and financial aid only covers $5,500 per semester. Again, if you’re lucky, the school says you “only” need to put up 10% of the costs before you register for class. Some colleges don’t offer that option. You take out more loans. You go to get your schedule and guess what? The school says you need to take remedial classes that don’t give you credit because your high school, in the bad community, with the outdated books and teachers who didn’t care, didn’t adequately prepare you for college courses. You go to your classes and the professors tell you the books you need are over $150.00 each, if they’re used. That’s if you’re lucky to get used books. Now you need money for books, you have to eat and you have get to back and forth to school so you get a credit card. The semester is over. Your student loan money comes and goes and your credit cards are maxed out. Now you have to get a job. Welcome to the world of working part-time, without benefits while going to college. You wash, rinse and repeat this process for the next four years while it costs you over $80,000.
Despite statistics, you barely make it and graduate in four to six years. You’re looking for a job. You went to college to save the world so you got a soft skills degree. You picked your major because it felt right. Turns out, you were wrong. Because you didn’t get proper guidance counseling in your overcrowded bad high school and your parents didn’t go to college, you picked a major that was over-saturated and didn’t pay well. Now you can’t find a job because you need a master’s degree or higher and five years experience to get into your low wage and over-saturated soft skills industry.
Six months later Sallie Mae comes a knocking. You feel the pressure so you ask for a deferment on your student loans. Your student loan debt gets bigger. You finally find a job, but you’re making $10.00 an hour with no benefits. To save your credit (because credit is for poor people), you contact the student loan folks and credit card companies. You decide to have them take a certain percentage of your salary. Because of all of this, now, just like your parents, you live in bad neighborhood, with bad schools and teachers who don’t care. And just like your parents, you’re deciding between the light bill, rent and food.
That’s poverty. That’s poverty in an economy many aren’t told about or ready for. We’re in an economy, where to get out of poverty, you have to go into deep debt just to live in working class poverty. Yep it’s an economy where poor people are sold a glamoured dream of wealth after higher education that maybe a nightmare of indebtedness and more multi-generational poverty. We’re in an economy in which millionaires, who paid $50 a credit 30 years ago in college, go on TV and talk about how our generation is entitled and lazy because millions just like you are defaulting on their loans.
What I just told you is the story and base case scenario for of millions of Americans. You see poverty, like I said earlier, is like quicksand, where only a lucky few climb out. Now imagine if you had a child before or while going to college? You sink deeper in the quicksand. Imagine if you made a mistake in high school and had criminal record? You can’t even get financial aid in an economy where some retail jobs require degrees. Now the quick sand is up to your neck and choking a mofo. Many Americans are under the quicksand, existing in horrific conditions and working until we’re dead.
Poverty is hard, horrible and evil. We need to stop shaming people who live in it. The shame is our collective willingness to ignore poverty and our unwillingness end it. Honestly, I really think some folks like keeping people in poverty because they like their place on the economic hierarchy. Corporations and the government want to maintain a cheap and debt dependent workforce to make more money. OK, let me take off my tin foil hat. Anyways I hope this kind of explains what’s it’s like to live in poverty. Feel free to post other pieces that explain poverty.