You want to know one of my pet peeves? The idea that there is a certain type of person who is poor. Because everyone knows that economic status defines who you are, the things you enjoy, the caliber of your intellect. Right?
I was trailer trash. Those kids running wild in the mobile home park with their dirty feet and their ratty clothes? I was one of them. We weren’t even financially solvent enough to own our own trailer. We rented, and we rented the cheapest trailers we could find, which were somewhat…less than posh. I rocked the louvered windows with the hand-crank. I was accustomed to the entire house moving when someone walked from one room to another. I was dutifully impressed by the weird indoor-golf green that covered the “porch.” I shared a mattress (box springs were a luxury, but sometimes we’d find them behind someone’s dumpster – lucky day!) with various siblings, often sans sheets because hey, who had money for laundry?
And that’s just the nice parts.
You know what else I was? Smart, artistic, talented. I was in the GATE program. I read constantly. I was accepted into the Johns Hopkins Program for Gifted Students when I was ten, after scoring the prerequisite over-1100 on my SATs. Is that incongruous? Because…I was poor, right? That meant I must have had bad grammar and enjoyed brawling and graffiti. And possibly marrying my cousins.
I don’t get how people can be so casually judgmental about the poor. I was part of a conversation recently in which a woman was talking about how dirty – physically covered in dirt – the kids were at an elementary school out in the sticks, and the other person (I am being intentionally vague) replied “That sort of thing comes from the home. They must have learned it from their parents.”
Okay, what? I’m sorry, do you honestly believe that the parents of impoverished children actually teach their offspring to be dirty? Or are you suggesting that the parents are just too lazy to teach their children to wash?
Because, when I was a poor kid (and I am aware that my situation was much, much better than some) there were times – months, sometimes – when we couldn’t afford propane, and that meant no stove (we cooked everything with an electric frying pan), no heat, no hot water. Bathing in cold water? Not a hell of a lot of fun, especially in winter. Did I wear my hair in a ponytail for the better part of seventh grade so that no one could tell I hadn’t washed it? Yes, yes I did. Did it work? Uh…
When our clothes were dirty, it wasn’t because we were ignorant of the inner workings of the laundromat or too busy watching daytime TV to wash them. It was because we could either have clean clothes or eat that week, and I’ve got to tell you, eating won out pretty much every time.
Don’t get me wrong. There were plenty of stupid, ignorant, horrible people who perpetuated the poor-people stereotype. But you know what? There are plenty of stupid, ignorant, horrible people who make a decent living. Money (or lack of it) doesn’t dictate how intelligent or free from prejudice you are.
And yeah, we were on welfare. You know what welfare gets you? Not a hell of a lot. As a family of four (three kids plus a father) we got around $200 in food stamps a month, plus a few hundred dollars for rent and utilities. The food stamps? Always gone in the first two weeks. Always. The money? Gone even faster.
Kids are expensive. Food is expensive. Gas is expensive. It didn’t matter how we economized or what we spent the money on – sometimes you’ve got to feed your kids meat so that they get enough protein, and if there’s a baby in the family, you needed diapers. Or shoes. Or coats. We bought our clothes at thrift stores and counted our pennies at the store, but – look. Take my word for it. It wasn’t enough.
We always had to supplement our income by setting up a stand at the flea market and selling cameras my father had refurbished, which meant we were always looking over our shoulders because the welfare department? Does not allow supplemental income. And then sometimes the cameras wouldn’t sell, and we’d be out of food or unable to pay our rent, and my dad would have us call his mother (who he refused to speak to) and beg for money, and…it sucked. And we still ended up without propane, or eating nothing but bread for a few days, or having to pack our stuff in the middle of the night and move.
It sucked, but it’s not like we were doing it on purpose. It’s not like we had a choice. We weren’t stupid, and we weren’t lazy, and we weren’t bad people. We were just poor. I’m not a better person now because I can afford to pay my rent and wear nice clothes. I’m just luckier.