Recently, my family fell on some hard times. My husband, a veteran, safety engineer, and EOD tech was finding it difficult to find an appropriate job. This meant that I, a marketing consultant and writer, was solely supporting my blended, family of seven. We made it work, with resourcefulness and a tight rein on our budget, we were doing pretty well. Neither of us have or want credit cards, and we were living within our means, life was pretty cool.
Then something awful happened, I was let go from my place of employment (this is a long story but I will say, people can be really petty and awful and selfish and might not have considered how I would be feeding my five kids – if you are reading this, please know I am talking about you) but I digress. I managed to pick up some freelance gigs, which held us together but things started to dry up. Times are hard and competition is fierce. We found ourselves in a position thousands of families across the country are in every day. We were out of work and running out of savings quickly and it didn’t seem like there was any hope in sight.
Soon our savings ran out and we became, in what felt like an instant, poor. Don’t get me wrong, we were never rich, but now, things were different. I was having a hard time figuring out what to do. I knew the truth about the world, this is how families end up sleeping in their cars. I was scared, we both were. Our days and nights were full of bitter anxiety and with each passing rejection letter, my self-worth and self-esteem was diminishing.
There are many awful things about being poor and none of it has much to do with money.
- Social Services will not come to your rescue. After depleting our life savings and borrowing all the money we were comfortable with borrowing, the time had come to look beyond all our resources and get help in the form of social services. So we applied and we waited, for weeks, to get a response, which came in the form of more paperwork and a million hoops to jump through. We faced judgement and scrutiny in the most shameful ways. “Don’t get pregnant” the case worker told me, “we aren’t putting any more of your children on this case” and in the end we were denied any help at all. The thing about social services is you have to be destitute with no other help in order to receive any services. They literally ask you “Don’t you have friends or family that can help you?” as one of the qualifying questions. They want you to basically be homeless in order to qualify. The irony of it all is that the money or assistance you receive wont help you get out of poverty because, that would be a crazy, right? Services that actually lift people from poverty.
- Trying to hide your poverty so the kids wont feel it. Without any social services we were really stretching our resources. “Can I have a glass of milk with my cookies, mom?” was a loaded question. I must respond “No” without explaining that we just can’t use milk for those frivolous things anymore. Confusing, right? How gross is cookies and water? Very. But I would make up excuses so my kids wouldn’t suspect the truth. Patching up holes in clothing, handing down jeans and jackets became the order of the times. They didn’t understand why I couldn’t just “Go to Target and get a new one” and I couldn’t explain why. Sooner or later though we had to come clean. They just didn’t understand why we were, all of a sudden, saying “No” to everything. So, we talked to our kids, honestly, without frightening them, by explaining that we were just on a really tight budget right now. Hiding that stress from them, denying the burden of it was hard but they are kids and kids deserve fun and they deserve to have milk with their cookies.
- Making constant excuses to friends and family about why we couldn’t participate in anything fun. All of this happened right around the holiday season when parties, dinners, and social gatherings were in full swing. My pride just wouldn’t let me say “I can’t afford to come to your event.” So we made excuses about being sick or having other engagements that didn’t exist. We missed being around our friends and family. In hindsight, perhaps we should have been more honest, perhaps if we had we would have gotten more support than we realized possible.
- It’s a shameful secret you carry like a metric ton on your shoulders. Being poor in America today is likened to being lazy, criminal, worthless, and no-good. Every day, I would scroll through my social media feeds and see post after post about how easy it was to achieve the American dream and if I wasn’t achieving, it was because I was just lazy or stupid. In response to that, I worked hard to hide my circumstances from others. When my child’s school reached out to find out if maybe I needed supplies from the local food bank, even though I did, I said “No,” and thought “My God, that’s for homeless people not me” I was so ashamed to need, so ashamed to be poor that it was unbearable. But I realized, poverty isn’t always self-inflicted, poverty is like a disease, it happens to you without you understanding why and the best you can do is fight hard to survive.
- Poverty is expensive. Every week that passed with no money and no relief in sight was adding to our collective debt. But that’s not what I mean by expensive – poverty cost me my pride, my self-esteem, my self-worth. It took my confidence and turned me into a weak, depressed, soul. My usually optimistic persona had become dark and inconsolable. I was constantly worried about my kids, my home, my husband, constantly wondering whether tomorrow would be the day the bank would come take my car, take my house, maybe even take my kids because I couldn’t afford to be a good mother. I lived in agony and felt defeated. Poverty doesn’t only cost you material possessions, it costs you a little bit of your soul too. It takes you to a dark and desperate place, which brings me to….
- Desperate and extreme thinking. I use to lie awake at night trying to figure out how to make money. No one was hiring me, not even Wal-Mart (I applied but they told me they did all their holiday hiring already) and there was just no hope in sight. What would I have to do to keep our heads above water? (I am pretty sure my husband was lying in bed right next to me thinking the same) I read an article a while back about a girl who sells her panties with much success and actually thought, “well, if worse comes to worse, I can always sell my panties” Can you imagine that? Me, a mother, a professional, a feminist, was actually thinking about selling her panties for some extra cash. Being poor makes you desperate and while I would have never actually sold my panties for money, I thought about. Like, seriously, thought about it.
- The strain on your marriage. My husband and I are close, as close as a couple can be. We have no secrets and we talk about our deepest and darkest thoughts but something about the strain of poverty was getting to us. Where we were once easy-going and open with each other, we unconsciously became withdrawn. We talked less, hugged less, kissed less, played less. Not because we were blaming each other for what was going on but simply because the financial stress was eating away at both of us on an emotional and mental level. The side-effect was a growing distance and silence that only broke when we admitted what was happening.
I am relieved and happy to say that we are at the end of our road. My husband has begun a new position with a prestigious company and we are on our way toward healing both the financial and mental stress of poverty. I have picked up some new freelance gigs and I continue to use my blog as a way to share and vent my experiences. For us this is a happy ending but for hundreds of families across the country and throughout the world, the ending is often much more tragic.
I am not ashamed anymore, hell, even J.K. Rowling was on food stamps at one point. What I want people to get out of this is that poverty has many faces and many characteristics. I want people to understand that poverty, like cancer, can happen to anyone, at any time, for any number of reasons. I want people to know that they should not judge someone hard on their luck or assume that every case of poverty is a case of laziness. No one wants to be poor, no one wants to need social services, no one wants to need help but no one should be made to feel ashamed should they find themselves in just that position.
If you find yourself in similar circumstances, there is help, you can find support.