On Being Poor

I’m eight years old and they pass out a flyer at school for a local soccer team. I’ve always wanted to be on a team and soccer seems fun. On my way out of the classroom, I throw the flyer away. I know there’s no point in asking to join. We can’t afford it.

I’m nine years old. A boy in my class throws a rock and it hits me in the face, breaking my glasses. I cry, both because it hurts and because I know my parents will be angry. Glasses are expensive and I dread having to tell my mom that I need a new pair.

I’m 10 years old and all I want in the world is to have a friend and to not feel like the social outcast that I am. The cool girls have Guess jeans, Esprit bags, and wear Keds. I have a homemade book bag, cheap jeans, and generic shoes that I hope people will think are Keds, but they never do. The day after Christmas, a popular girl calls me to ask what presents I got. She’s clearly making a list. I make up presents so my list seems longer. I lie and say I got an Esprit bag. When I go back to school, I have to make up a story about why I’m still carrying the same old book bag. One day we find a used Esprit bag at a second hand store and my mom buys it for me. I can’t wait to carry my things to school in it the next day. During class, one of the cool girls notices the bag and with a crinkle of her nose says it looks dirty.

I’m 13 years old and I’m on the free and reduced lunch plan at school. I’m glad to have hot lunch at school but when I wait in line, I worry about who is standing behind me because soon they’ll know for sure that I’m poor.

I’m 14 years old and it is my first day of high school. I’m not on free and reduced lunch yet this year. That day I bring an orange and a bag of air popped popcorn for lunch, because that was all we had in the house. I eat my popcorn slowly and tell people that I’m on a diet. My friends eat french fries and burritos and my stomach growls.

I’m 14 years old and I have one pair of shoes. They are shiny black loafers and they don’t match the peach shorts and tank top my mom made for me. I wear them because I have no choice and I smile and nod when a girl in my class says “wow, you must really love those shoes! You wear them every day!” I beg my mom to take me to Wal-mart so I can buy a pair of plain white tennis shoes with my babysitting money. She does but they don’t have my size. I buy the wrong size just so I can wear something else to school the next day.

I’m 16 years old and I’m asking my best friend to borrow .60 cents again so I can get a bag of chips at lunch. I try not to think about the fact that I “borrow” money from her almost every day. I don’t think either of us expects that I’ll ever pay her back.

I’m 17 years old and I’ve just found out that my parents have withdrawn money from my savings account so they can make the house payment. Months worth of saving babysitting and part-time job money for college is gone in an instant.

I’m 38 years old and I’m writing this from the cozy basement of the cozy house on the nice block where I live. I’m going to go to the grocery store in a little bit where I can buy whatever we need to get us through the week. My children have never been hungry. We choose their backpacks based on what looks sturdy and what colors and characters they like best. My kids don’t get everything they want and there are some things that I’d like that are financially out of reach for us, but we have enough. We have more than enough. We are lucky. I am grateful. I’m always aware that things can go sideways so I keep an eye on our budget and hope I can put some money in savings next paycheck.

I read the news and see that there are people who think that we shouldn’t be funding programs like free and reduced lunch because there’s “no demonstrable evidence” that it helps kids do better in school. The meanness of this takes my breath away. The idea that we shouldn’t feed hungry children because they are HUNGRY CHILDREN unless we can “prove” that it “works” is profoundly cruel.

(on a side note, do you know why you can’t prove that free and reduced lunch “works”? Because you can’t ethically do a study that would prove that. Proving it works would require giving lunch to some hungry kids and denying lunch to some other hungry kids and then seeing if there is a difference in their outcomes. No researcher would be allowed to do this because it is a HORRIBLE THING TO DO.)

Being a poor kid means dealing with shame and fear and, yes, sometimes hunger. That there are adults who want to make that experience worse makes just makes me so very angry.




16 thoughts on “On Being Poor

  1. Jen says:

    Yes this exactly. When I was young, I remember my mom taking pop cans (not our pop cans) to the store for the refund to buy milk for us.

    I cannot understand anyone who thinks there even should be evidence that it works. Children should not be hungry ever. I will gladly pay more taxes if I know children will be receiving food as a result.

    • K Nardi says:

      This was a great post!!
      I was a teen in the 60’s and we didn’t have much but luckily we wore uniforms.
      Couple times of year was dress up day and there was one girl who bought all her clothes at JLHudsons,very upscale store,we all knew,she use to bring her lunch in Hudson paper bags,funny when you think of it.
      Me and my best friend use to go to the fabric store and make our Al Line skirts and say they were from Hudsons.
      Guess this problem has been around for ever but its much worse now because I never thought we were poor,just that some people had more than me.
      Its very hard,being hungry is sinful and sad and reading the above stories touched me,been there,done that.
      Must be an anwer.

  2. Judy mcgowan says:

    I commend who ever thought of putting this out there.no child should ever be hungry, it’s so sad it breaks my heart. I wish I was rich I’d give it all away to people in need.

  3. William Austin says:

    When I was a school kid I got a free token every day. It was a different color than the ones paid for. I was always teased and picked on for being poor. My only saving grace was I got so upset I went to a gym and begged a man to teach me to box. He was a great teacher. I did learn to box and in the 9th grade I had my novice fight. I won. That paved the way for me. I gained confidence to defend myself and got pretty tough along the way also. Some business owners put together a group and backed me financially while I was an amatuer. When this happened it was the first time I ever had a dollar to buy anything. Everything changed. Guys wanted to be my friend and girls were a dime a dozen. Now that I am older, successful and have children of my own I never let them forget to be humble and grateful. once a month I will go to a really poor school and buy lunches for the poor children. I remember !!!

      • William Austin says:

        M J Girls are still a dime a dozen. Get your head out of the sand and mingle. Every cafe, bar, grocery store, office etc etc there are girls. Not saying they are all push overs or easy but they are available and can be reached. Unless you are evil and/or a prick the girls are all ready for dates.

  4. Bill says:

    I didn’t have quite this experience growing up, was in a home a little more stable economically. I’ll say I grew up “economically adjacent” to it. So this article brought a flood of memories to me. Even seeing it second-hand walking next to those going through it, you never forget it. It makes me feel so much anger towards those who think withdrawing support for people in these circumstances is a helpful thing. Their notion that the program for which people are unfairly stigmatized is the root of all this pain and suffering is as if a person were on crutches and being mocked for how it makes them move slowly and someone decided to fix the problem by taking away the crutches

  5. Shannon says:

    My best friend ate at my house everyday because there was no food for her at home. I hated it and would sneak her cans of spaghetti-os all the time so we wouldnt have to tell anyone. We were not richby any means. Bothmy parents worked and my mom worked 2 jobs almost all my life. We never had name brand shoes or expensive clothes but they were good enough for me and my brother. I was picked on and my best friend always told me that atleast i had these things and so i never ever let it get to me cause how could i when she had it so much worse. But we were happy… she is still my bestfriend to this day 29 yrs later and although our lives are totally different we never for get! God bless everyone…expecially those w no voice of their own!

  6. Sherri says:

    Too bad the system doesn’t work like this. Just because you loose your job, or fall on hard times doesn’t mean you qualify for food for your child/children..

  7. Ann Larson says:

    For evidence talk to any teacher. Many of them have learned to keep nutritious snacks in a drawer for kids who arrive hungry. They’ve seen the difference it makes.

  8. siiri2 says:

    When I was a kid I did not know that not everyone shopped at thrift stores + bought food with food stamps. As an adult dumpstering, collecting drink containers + scavenging scrap metal is so much a part of my everyday life I often forget how foreign it is for a lot of others.

  9. stefansamuelson says:

    I opened up a WordPress account just so I could respond to this. I’ve experienced almost every one of these things in some way, shape, or form. I started out life as one of the kids who always had whatever I needed, if not whatever I wanted… things changed abruptly when I was about eight, and didn’t improve significantly until my twenties when I managed to extricate myself from the things that had torpedoed my life as a child. It always strikes me, when politicians rail against these programs, that the ones doing the railing are the ones who have no idea what it’s like to suffer in this way. The essence of a democracy is helping everyone, not just the people who don’t need help. Children growing up in need are the ones with the least power in our society to change their situation, and they should not have the psychological trauma of exposure and humiliation heaped on top of the pain they already experience from frequently not having their basic needs met. Are there “poor people” who game the system and don’t try hard to pull their own weight? Certainly… but it is not th children who are doing this. Furthermore, I suspect that the amount of resources that are drained by “welfare loafers” amounts to a fraction of what is devoured by the “haves” with their various schemes, kickbacks, tax cuts, etc.

    We can afford to help children to suffer less. It is morally repugnant not to.

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