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.
Things began falling apart after about two weeks. When I showed up to the office for my paycheck, they told me it was being held, that I wouldn’t be paid for another two weeks. It was policy. My mouth dropped open. My savings had been steadily dwindling since we’d moved into our house. I needed to pay rent, and pay for the gas that got me to the stables every morning at seven a.m. and took me home at six. I needed to buy groceries. But my boss was unsympathetic, or didn’t understand. There was no wiggle room, she told me.
When I got home that day I started the first of what would be many fights with my girlfriend about money. I yelled at her for not looking hard enough for a job. We went to bed hungry and angry.
Over the next two weeks I bought groceries and gas with my debit card, not realizing I didn’t have overdraft protection. I ended up with $300 in overdraft fees, which ate up my entire paycheck, when I finally did get it, and all of my savings.
Finally, my girlfriend got a part-time job. We celebrated with a candy bar each and a six-pack of Guinness.
We paid off the overdraft fees, but our savings were gone, and there was absolutely no wiggle room in our budget. I was working for less than minimum wage, and although my girlfriend was paid more fairly, she worked only two days a week. Our rent was extremely cheap, but there was gas to pay for, and a parking ticket I got when one of our housemates forced me out of the driveway on a street-cleaning night. We had to go to the laundromat so our small room didn’t smell permanently like horse. Plus, there was always something falling apart. My boots needed patching. I blew out one of my car’s tires and had to drive on the donut for a week. My rabbits destroyed a phone charger.
The only non-essential expense on our budget was food. So the amount we spent, per week, on food, shrunk to five dollars.
At first I just went a little hungry. I left my girlfriend the larger part of any meal we made, and it wasn’t so bad. I drank three cups of coffee at work instead of eating lunch. I ate beet pulp out of the horse’s bins when I was feeding them because it expands in your stomach and makes you feel a little more full. I went to bed early.
It took a shockingly short amount of time before I was hungry enough to start stealing food. I never admitted to my girlfriend I was doing it, even years later. I’d tell her a coworker had given me a pack of frozen hamburgers. I’d tell her the reason I could give her the lion’s share of the mac and cheese for dinner was that I’d gotten pizza for lunch at work. But these things weren’t true. I was making raiding trips to my estranged mother’s house a few miles away and bringing back cans of vegetables. I was stealing food from the fridges at work. I was stealing food from our housemates.
The summer was one of the hardest I’ve ever experienced. My girlfriend and I fought constantly: about money, about her looking for work, about absolutely nothing because we were stressed out and empty-bellied enough to conjure problems out of thin air. We didn’t see a movie or go out to eat the entire summer. We didn’t see a concert or buy new clothing or go to the beach.
I went hungry. I lived in a house with a convict violating his parole, putting me at risk for being charged with harboring a fugitive. I worked eleven hours a day for less than minimum wage doing very dangerous work. One day at the stable, my favorite horse broke free from his ties while I was grooming him and knocked me unconscious. When I woke up I got up and kept working, because I couldn’t afford the lost time. I got in a car accident because I fell asleep at the wheel after doing manual labor for ten hours on only a few hours of sleep. I’m surprised that didn’t happen more often.
I was forced into this position even as I was healthy, enrolled in a fancy liberal arts school, had access to a car, and didn’t have dependents to support. That should give you an idea of how difficult it is for people who do not have the advantages I did to survive, let alone maintain a humane quality of life. I’ve been sucked down into poverty several times since then, although thankfully never as badly. My legs up–my race, college education, mobility, and lack of dependents–have allowed me to pull myself above the poverty line multiple times.
If there are any people reading this who believe that “the poor” are an invisible, mythical mass of people in a city far from you, please consider this your wake up call. I look like you. I talk like you. I have a Facebook and a cell phone and I listen to Rihanna and go to baseball games. But I have been desperately poor*, even considering how lucky I’ve been in the privileges I was born with.
I don’t like to tell sob stories to “raise awareness,” (although if this piece compels a few people to stop making dumb comments about welfare queens, or announcing that they know what it’s like to be homeless because they went on a road trip, that would be gravy), so here are some action items:
1. Support raising minimum wage.
3. Support programs like SNAP, and advocate for their expansion, not reduction.
4. Support public transportation.
5. Support affordable, quality child care.
*for an American