Being poor is worse than having a disease. When you have a disease, you have the hope that someone will figure out what it is and it can be cured or you learn to manage it. Being poor leaves you with no hope of rescue. It’s a lot more than the difference between to have or have not.
Being poor is government issued tube sliced baloney sandwiches and thick unmeltable cheese on white Wonder bread. It’s canned fruit cocktail in lieu of fresh fruit.
It’s politicians determining what you have, when you have it, when you have reached your limit, and creating more laws to keep you trapped. It’s standing in long lines for handouts you wouldn’t take if you had money. It’s falling to the trap of finding free events created by whites for inner-city youth, then listening to them complain that you’re there. It’s being subjected to other people’s disdain because of those handouts, or because–poor.
It’s being on the short stick of the arrogance of someone else’s nose in the air. It’s spit where polish would go. It’s paper in the bottom of shoes that long ago lost their usefulness leftover from a style and era before you were born. It’s hand-me-down books in school when you can’t afford to buy your own; books 20-years out of date, earmarked, highlighted, with edge notes and unrecognizable stains on the pages.
It is wearing someone else’s not your size, hand me downs, or homemade clothes. It’s not being able to shop in the store your mother works cleaning fingerprints off glass counters and doors. It’s watching store clerks almost stroke out seeing you in the hat second fearing you’ll want to try one on that’s only mean for white heads.
Being poor is having a special card at the grocery store where uneducated clerks become managers of what you want to charge, who feel free to give you their unwarranted opinion of what the card will cover. It’s overweight store clerks telling you what you should be eating or buying. It’s buying cheap where buying bulk would be more advantageous and thrifty. It’s the difference between counting the right calories to eat, but affording only the wrong. It’s the difference between cable and local channels.
Being poor is having to sit with the unwashed masses on busses and subway cars and being felt up when you pass by regardless of your age or respectability. It’s inserting boundaries on your travels that stretch beyond the bus/subway route for a change in your oppressive scenery. It’s having your travels restricted from anything adventurous outside that boundary.
It’s brown-bagging greasy sandwiches or leftover fried chicken in the corporate lunchrooms where your bag sits among your coworker’s cottage cheese, yogurt, yesterday’s take-outs, and sparkling waters. It’s knowing you’re not invited to after-hour events because you’re, well, poor.
Being poor is where you’re considered uneducated, stupid, and even ill-equipped to vote. It’s government workers prying into every measurable unit of your life and trying to control your every move. It’s untrained workers who envy anything good you’ve acquired, whether earned or inherited, and want it gone so they can take more joy in your misery.
Being poor controls where your kids go to school, where you live, where you shop. It’s government workers who say they want you to do better, but need to control how fast that “doing better” is. It’s having to sell your hard-earned property in order to qualify for medical care for serious illnesses. It’s being punished for trying to save. It’s having your money docked if you get a raise so that saving and doing better continues to be that carrot mocking your horse-drawn life.
Being poor is the difference between borrowing and owning. Even if it doesn’t take away your dreams, it impacts the grandiosity of how you dream. It’s being limited whereby paying cheap is short-lived and a dollar more would make a quality buy last longer; quantity versus quality.
Being poor impacts the dreams of your children, some more than others. It controls with whom your children play, what sports they can play, what toys they can own. It’s having their names on a list so their teacher can have them get their subsidized food when their friends have lunch boxes complete with Tupperware containers so all items remain separate and small freezer packs inserted in a corner of the box to keep it fresh. It’s having teachers who “know” your story and know they see you differently—with a tainted view of your physical person, not of your capacity to–BE. It’s giving other kids something to laugh at when you have to write that first composition every year in English class about what you did or where you went over the summer.
It’s lowering the odds of your child going to a school that focuses on their major instead of a community college of general studies. It’s watching your child dumb-down to keep from standing out and becoming a target. It’s learning early to not be boastful or proud of your intelligence because it angers your teachers and intimidates the white kids, thus making you a target of focused racism where grading will impact your future life. So you learn to dumb-down, but it leads to patterned-learned behavior because no one tells you when it’s okay to stop doing that and show how smart you are. You wear that dumbing like a straightjacket which binds you tightly and is controlled by someone other than yourself.
Being poor makes a preteen a babysitter before they know how to take of themselves. It’s knowing that your child can’t study because they’re scared of gunfire, or the noise in the building is distracting. It’s dealing with the constantly overwhelming smells of others’ food filling the hallway air where no fresh breeze is allowed. It’s the knowledge that your child can only choose between a recreational center for sports, and a gang for survival.
The difference between joining a gym and cleaning one. It’s seeing your prepubescent girls being taunted and sexualized by the predators in the neighborhood, but your bus ride prevents you from walking them safely through such a maze. It’s settling for childcare with unlicensed neighbors with a house full of kids so you can go to your minimum wage job where the boss’s son is half your age and lords his power over all his workers like a knife-wielding madman.
It’s those rare parents who insist on teaching their kid to say “please” and “thank you” in a no-pleasing, thankless world. It’s rearing kids in dank, dark buildings with dank, dark hallways and in bedrooms with little chance of fresh air or room to run. It’s being financially segregated, of which racial segregation is a byproduct. At its worst it is being an individual family unit where fear called “no see-no tell” is the dividing factor.
It’s sleeping six to a room built for two, in a bed built for three—maximum. It’s a clothesline where a jump rope would be. It’s lowering the odds of your child being discovered for their talent and intelligence. It’s your child settling for a stray cat or pit bull when a Cocker Spaniel is more compatible with their nature. It’s only having leftovers to feed the dog that’s not on your budget, but gives your children some measure of happiness.
Being poor is the difference between having your mother with limited experience fry your hair in the kitchen because you can’t go to the local hair stylist. It’s using cheap relaxers that damage your hair, because the creams for natural hair is expensive, and you do major damage before you learn you can make your own hair care products inexpensively.
It’s not being boastful or proud of your intelligence because it angers your teachers and intimidates the white kids, thus making you a target of focused racism. So you learn to dumb-down, but then that leads to patterned-learned behavior because no one tells you when it’s okay to show how smart you are. You spend the major part of your life trying to not outshine coworkers and bosses who work because they know they will become your boss with little-to no knowledge, but you work because you want to do better. It’s working for bosses you make look so good they won’t promote you because there’s no one to replace you. Or, watching 2-or-3 new white hires try to replace what you did for less money by yourself.
It allows random people the freedom to discuss your finances aloud so no one can tell THEY are doing worse with their own personal accounts. It’s having to choose which bill to pay, which to defer, and dealing with the constant wrath of whoever is not paid.
Being poor even impacts your religious choices to either what is within walking distance or trolley line even though your beliefs lie elsewhere. It injects preachers or their First Lady into your life so they can feel important, benevolent because you need a loan from them so your child can participate in something. It’s being forced to take baskets of food items that someone doesn’t want in their cupboards and you are expected to be appreciative with no hint of dislike or resentment to accept things you don’t even eat. It’s another way to make others feel benevolent and hold you accountable to acknowledge their goodness and mercy for all the rest of your days.
Being poor is the difference between eating healthy and fast food. It’s being limited to a bus route. It’s going to universities where dentists-in-training do your dental work and you take what you get. It’s using mental health clinics where the staff operates by number rather than by individual. It’s hoping your kids didn’t see the commercials of some new toy near the holidays. It’s saying you can’t afford something when you want to do more–better. It’s hearing your mother crying into her pillow at night from the overwhelming frustration of it all. It’s staying in on the weekends because you don’t trust your neighbors to watch your children because you see theirs standing on street corners past even your own bedtime.
As a child your view of being poor creates anger without understanding why you feel that way. It’s watching your parents fight about what’s important for bills, your education, their jobs, or just out of the frustration of not being allowed to choose. It’s seeing your father emasculated according to the whims of social services. It’s seeing your mother’s pain at having to leave you home when you’re sick because she can’t afford to stay home and take care of you. It’s family members constantly switching monies from their pocket to another’s depending on who gets their money on time. It’s knowing the place you work at deliberately withholds paying on time, or docking your money because—they can, which begins the money shuffle.
It’s being angry at the invisible state of hopelessness and taking it out on whomever is closest or convenient. It damages who or how you love, and sometimes how long your relationships will be. It’s a snapshot (hopefully) of your life that is branded in your mind and plays a role in your future choices.
Being poor makes adults turn to liquor and drugs to have some type of control in their lives. It starts off just to get you through the day, then this pay period, then this month, then you lose control and it takes over your life. It’s seeing misery in being controlled by a substance or controlled by an agency standing by to take your family apart.
It’s the despair in living in subsidized houses/apartments that no one would voluntarily choose to live in and pay rent for; located in neighborhoods that are dangerous to your well-being. And, as a result of that subsidy, it’s your children knowing way too early in life what crime and violence is. Those kinds of places where people robbed of their hope for a better life are shuffled into blank spaces hollowed out from frustrations and pain with no place else to go.
It’s living in substandard housing with coal-fueled heat and claw-footed bathtubs when most (white) homes (the privileged) have had showers, gas and electric heating for years. Those places where laws had to be made to force white-flight owners to repair because they know their tenants have no place else to go so they will get their rent regardless. It’s systemic control where humanity and empathy have lost their way.
It’s not being able to pay the utilities so you fill a tub with cold water, to which you add pots of water heated on the stove for a lukewarm bath. It’s going to school/work today smelling like yesterday.
Being poor is the difference between generic store brands versus USDA approved. Or the difference between taking a two-week vacation, and not having to go to work for two weeks.
It can be the difference between going without the necessities to survive, and taking what’s not yours. Between hearing and listening. It’s hearing the public laugh and mock your child’s name that you took your time to research from the book of names of the elders, when there are privileged white kids who carry names like Coco, Harley Quinn, Pilot Inspektor, Moon Unit, Jet, Apple, Diva Muffin, Daisy Boo, Atticus, Banjo, and Calico. Between having your child labeled a gang member no matter how untrue simply because of their creative name, socioeconomic status, and neighborhood. Between burying your children too soon, and having the county cremate them as indigent because you can’t afford to bury them properly.
Being Black and poor is a whole other level of bondage. Being poor messes in every way with your sense of hope. It’s growing innocently into adulthood and finding out that the system is so rigged that even the white poor have an advantage, inherent privilege. It is being thirsty and only seeing water as a mirage on the periphery of hope. It’s feeling despair where hope should be. It’s being angry at being beyond the grasp of hope. It puts an unwashed, blurred filter on your life’s lens that you use to see where hope lies. It’s feeling as if God has deserted you when He may not be saying yes or no, but simply–wait.
[Originally posted 7/9/14]