I’m going to begin this post with a disclaimer:
I am a young, white, able-bodied person with college educated parents who have been employed my entire life. I was able to go to college. Depending on the time in my life, and how you define “middle-class,” I’ve spent most of my life straddling the border between working and middle class. My experiences with living below the poverty line may seem like the whining of college kids who think they know what being poor is because they ate mostly Ramen for a few months. But I didn’t actually have a safety net. My mother and I were estranged, and even if we hadn’t been, she had no extra money for me. My godfather leased a car for me, and helped pay my phone bill. That was as much as he could do. I’m lucky that my time living below the poverty line was short, but it was not self-imposed.
Following my Sophomore year of college, my girlfriend and I decided to live together for the summer. We looked through the Craigslist listings and found a room in a group house we thought we could afford. I got a job as a barn hand at a college in the northwestern part of the state, and my godfather paid for me to lease a car so I could get there. Things started off well. We set the bunnies up in a corner of the room, I started a compost pile in our tiny back lot, and we even got a free TV from the guy upstairs who was buying a better one for his room.
I started my new job eagerly. I loved being outside all day. It was freezing cold in late May, and being outside in the damp weather for 10 hours a day could be punishing, but I liked what I was doing.
Every morning I’d get up, grab a couple of pieces of bread and a mug of coffee, and begin the hour-long drive to the barn. The first half of the trip was typical NJ highway driving, so I listened to the news on NPR and drank my coffee to stay awake. The second half, though, was a winding route that took me over beautiful tree-lined country roads. I loved that part of the drive. More than once I stopped the car, put on my flashers, and helped a lost turtle cross the road safely.
While I was wrangling horses, my girlfriend was looking for work. We were solidly in the Great Recession, and central New Jersey had been hit relatively hard, but we thought she’d at least be able to find part-time work somewhere in town. We were wrong.