It’s Thanksgiving, and time to count our blessings. The first one I always start with is the gratefulness I feel for escaping poverty (my family’s story is told here) and making it to the middle class against the odds. Fully 70% of poor children never make it to the middle class. I could not have done it without the assistance of the federally funded, educational opportunity program, Upward Bound, founded as part of the War on Poverty. The program is only able to serve 7% of eligible students, so I am particularly appreciative that I was able to be one of the few who were able to access this vital program.
Picture from the Washington Post
This past week, Linda Tirado wrote a piece for the Huffington Post in which she described why the “bad decisions” that people in poverty make actually make “perfect sense.” Earlier this year, researchers at Princeton backed her up by publishing research showing that poor people made “bad decisions” in an attempt to avoid being overwhelmed. Tirado described the inability to plan ahead forced on poor people by the chronic lack of time that follows working multiple jobs. I could immediately relate, and also remembered a secondary reason why planning was so difficult. The lack of money just wouldn’t allow it. You never knew if you’d have enough gas money. You couldn’t be sure if having to pay the light bill two days late would cut off the electricity this time or if they would be merciful. Today, my family’s bills are auto-paid online with relative certainty that there will sufficient funds. We frequently have small piles of change totaling between $2-5 lying on dressers, nightstands, counters, and they sit there for days. I marvel at this on a regular basis. When I was growing up, we had to scrounge for pennies, and would often put $1.00 in the gas tank, because that was all we could find. Speaking of cars, my current car was bought new. It has never stalled. Growing up, our dilapidated car, when we had one, was bought third or even fifth hand, and broke down constantly. It was useless to guarantee you could show up somewhere. I cannot express how deeply thankful I am for these improvements in my life.
Nearly half of Americans spend some point in their lives below the poverty line. Historically, people who used welfare went off and on as their ability to maintain employment waxed and waned, often in concert with the economy. The most common length of time people spent on welfare was two years, which is why the architects of welfare reform selected two years as a cutoff for a given period of receipt. Not our family. We were one of those bad statistics where a mentally ill single mother received SSI and AFDC for her kids for at least ten years. It was always a gamble to see if the check you had to write for the heating bill, or else get cut off, would clear before your government check arrived, thus causing an overdraft. Then, there was the seven-year ban from local banks on having a checking account for having too many overdrafts. It was a life of bouncing from one crisis to the next. Other people hate being taxpayers; I relish it. I love having enough income to pay into the system, to know that I am helping another family like mine. It is, by far, better to be a taxpayer than the recipient of tax-funded programs. For this privilege, a job, sufficient health to do the job, and enough pay to owe money instead of receiving an earned income tax credit, I am extremely thankful.
Tirado talks about the depression that haunts those in poverty…the relentless, nagging self-loathing, mental anguish, sense of hopelessness, and endless fatigue (often amplified by lack of sleep). It is also plainly exhausting to deal with poverty day after day; it zaps what little energy one has. From this state, you seek escapes. Television, smoking, drinking, perhaps even drugs. Tirado also describes the love affair of poor people with junk food. She writes, “Junk food is a pleasure that we are allowed to have; why would we give that up? We have very few of them.” Not only is crappy food the cheapest food, it is also designed to appeal to what humans crave: salt and sugar. The empty carbohydrates do fuel the body and have a pleasing taste, but they pack on the pounds without providing nutrition. While conservatives mock the notion that being hungry or not having sufficient money for food could cause obesity, there is plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise. Eating healthy is actually expensive. My own diet in the present is more costly than a poor person’s in the sense that our family can afford fresh fruits and vegetables, sufficient protein, and wholesome carbohydrates. Furthermore, my husband has sufficient time to cook food from scratch for us (I did not learn to cook anything that wasn’t packaged like Ramen noodles or macaroni and cheese). I am very blessed to have these nutritious, home-cooked meals. Oh, and I quit smoking when I became middle class. There was just less stress to trigger the need.
Unfortunately, poverty has long-terms effects on health, even for people who escape it. I am in incredibly poor health for someone of my age. I take a fistful of medications every day for 1) polycystic ovarian syndrome, 2) bipolar disorder, 3) PTSD, 4) generalized anxiety disorder, 5) chronic migraine headaches, 6) spondylolisthesis (a degenerative back disorder), and 7) pain for heel, thigh, and shoulder bursitis, and post-surgical rotator cuff surgery. In three weeks, I will be getting my second surgery this year, and my third surgery overall. However, I am very grateful for having excellent health insurance with a network of outstanding providers. When they send me surveys about my care, I actually fill them out, and I practically rave about the quality of care I receive. I know that there are millions of poor people spending this holiday in agony from untreated illnesses and pains. It is tragic to see red states refuse to expand Medicaid or set up their healthcare exchanges to finally provide access to the people who still remain uninsured. For example, poor black men in Detroit have the same life expectancy as men in Uzbekistan, but Michigan is not helping the poor get health care.
Tirado discusses the fact that poor people are often not beautiful. Getting time to exercise, which is critical for maintaining weight and good skin, is a pipe dream. Aside from frequent problems with being overweight, there are the ubiquitous problems with teeth from untreated dental problems and unfixed orthodontia issues. You can’t afford to maintain your hairstyle in a timely way or you cut it yourself to ill effect. The clothes you buy are often unflattering and make you look frumpy, especially if you’re overweight. The clothes they make for overweight people are pretty ugly no matter your social class. You take what you can get at thrift stores or the cheap chain stores. I am intensely appreciative that when I was growing up, taxpayers were willing to fund Medicaid, which included dental benefits. It can be hard for program recipients to find dentists who take Medicaid, but I was fortunate to have a grandmother who had been a receptionist for a dentist for some 15+ years. He took our family’s Medicaid card. My teeth are healthy and my smile doesn’t turn people off. In the present, I can afford to pay for regular trips to the hair salon to keep up my chosen hairstyle, and I can afford to shop for clothes that flatter me. For this, I am also thankful, especially because it signals to others that I am middle class and I am treated better than I would be if I were seen as poor.
James Twitchell said,
“There is, in fact, a special crippling quality to poverty in the modern Western world. For the penalty of intractable, transgenerational destitution is not just the absence of things; it is also the absence of meaning, the exclusion from participating in the essential socializing events of modern life… Clearly what the poor are after is what we all want: association, affiliation, inclusion, magical purpose. While they are bombarded, as we all are, by the commercial imprecations of being cool, of experimenting with various presentations of the disposable self, they lack the wherewithal to even enter the loop.”
Today, I can go to the same movies everyone is seeing if I wish, and then have discussions about them. I can buy a computer for my home and sit on the Internet as long as I like and write blog posts instead of waiting in line for a computer at the public library (only to be limited to 30 minutes). I can buy my child items that help him “fit in” in school so he won’t be teased as I was for having “ratty clothes.” This is what I am most grateful for…the sense that I am now part of American society, not banished to its margins, incapable of participating. In summary, Happy Thanksgiving and thank you to all you liberals who keep fighting for people in poverty to live better lives!
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.