Being Poor

Posted by Ann Evans in activism, domestic life, women, women's liberation | 3 comments

According to Charles Blow’s article in The New York Times this morning ,“…the No. 1 reason people gave for our continuing poverty crisis was: ‘Too much welfare that prevents initiative.’”

I’ll bet you never thought I had come close to welfare, with my two M.A.’s, a couple of successful careers, multilingual, well traveled. Some people even find me forbidding because of my accomplishments and education. Yet I came within a hair of being on welfare.

It’s a long and complicated story (they all are), but at the dramatic breakup of my first marriage I was left with no home, no car, no job, no money in the bank, and two kids to support. My mother offered me and my two small children three weeks of hospitality, but what good would that do me? Even if I could find a job within three weeks, I could not leave my children unattended.

At just that point my aunt bought a new car and gave me her old one.

Just before a scheduled visit to the welfare office several days later another stroke of blind luck came my way. A friend of a friend heard my story and offered the upper floor of her home at a modest rent, which my mother paid for several months.

The family money was the difference for me. My aunt could afford to give away her car, and my mother was not inconvenienced by paying my rent. (She would have been more inconvenienced by having two small children around.) The family money comes from my great grandfather’s success in the late 1800s and has padded the lives of several successive generations. Without her financial cushion, maybe my mother would have been more forthcoming. She would have felt the bite of despair at some point. She had spent her adult life as a homemaker and in her gut probably did not quite click into my childcare dilemma. Maybe she thought I lacked initiative, though I have never suffered that lack.

Needless to say (though sometimes I wonder), my own experiences have given me a basketful of compassion for the dispossessed.

I could coast through life on my outward appearance of comfort and success, but in the face of what people are suffering these days, that does not seem ethical. Disdain of the poor is not only unseemly, but hypocritical. Outwardly successful people don’t talk about their days fishing quarters out of the couch to buy dinner for the kids just as they don’t talk about their abortions. They don’t want to be disdained. This just makes things worse for the poor.

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Comments (3)
  1. Deborah Graham says:

    I didn’t end up on welfare, but I certainly did spend time on unemployment off and on over the last several years during the latest economic squeeze. It felt humiliating, and I never lost sight of the fact that I was no more than a month or two away from being out on the street if I didn’t make something work.

    My children were grown and out of the home, but I felt like a bottom feeder, and it definitely did a job on my self confidence and feelings of self worth even with a lifetime of work experience and supposedly marketable skills. Time spent at the unemployment office made me realize there were a lot of other people struggling just as much as I was. There were people who brought their young children to the unemployment office, and I realized it was because they couldn’t afford a sitter to take care of them while they were there. It was definitely a humbling experience, and it gave me not only a compassion for people who were struggling more than I was but also a true appreciation for every little thing that actually allowed my life to work during that time of stress.

    • Ann Evans says:

      Thank you for telling your story, Deborah. I hope that you are doing something satisfying now. As a friend used to say, “There but for grace would go you and me.”

  2. Anonymous says:

    I did grow up poor. We were on welfare for much of my childhood. My father died when I was eight, and my mother, with four children under 10 years old, had no real work experience. Thus, welfare, food stamps, night job cleaning offices, and still, not enough. We lived in housing projects, trailers, once in an abandoned garage. We lived without electricity sometimes, without running water or even a working toilet at others. Sometimes dinner was a box of donuts, sometimes there was no dinner. But we survived.
    What strikes me about your essay and Deborah’s comment is that the humiliation of the poor is ever present. It is certainly humbling, but I know that the compassion I have for others comes from my experience and my knowledge that there is absolutely nothing a child can do to raise themselves up out of poverty. That includes change the color of their skin, fake cultural and academic knowledge that they don’t have, or cure a debilitating disability. Yet our society, still, is so unforgiving and uncaring. When I finally gained the financial security and education that I craved, believing them to be necessary to live a “better” life, I found instead that you can never erase your background, or fit within these socially-constructed institutions without selling some of your soul, and I no longer want to. Thanks for posting this.

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Life went on

Life went on again after Daring to Date Again: A Memoir ended, so I began this wide-ranging blog about life as a writer and as a woman in the early 21st century, especially as an older woman.

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