Poverty Changed Me Forever

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This post tells a bit about my history with poverty and illness… not because I take pride in my transcendence from these afflictions, but rather because I have a clear understanding of how most people aren’t so fortunate, and how these still affect me today.  I should be been a statistic, and I am positive I would have been if I would have lived in a different environment with a different set of variables.  My ability to persevere, admittedly, has little to do with me and everything to do with my privilege.  My hope is that everyone reading this is left with a clearer understanding that urban poverty is not a choice, it is an set of circumstances that typically changes and oppresses the human mind and spirit.

I turn on the TV to shows like The Voice and American Ninja Warrior, only to realize these programs have made themselves as much about special interest stories as they have about talent.  The thrust is that the country wants very much to see people who have transcended their hardships and circumstances, and consciously moved toward a life of accomplishment.

“Wait, isn’t this an urbanist blog?”  Hold tight, I’m getting there.

We, as humans, want to be inspired by incredible stories from those who overcome the likes of poverty, disease, abuse and challenging circumstances.  We need these stories, for they show us that just because we might be down, we’re not out.

The problem with the glorification of these special interest stories lies in why they are so special to begin with… they don’t happen very often.  Usually, people who grow up in generational poverty stay within the confines of generational poverty.  People who struggle with poverty and physical or mental health or addiction issues and don’t have the resources to address them will likely fall victim to their caustic grasp.  But too often, we look at those who transcend these situations and say “if this person can overcome their horrible situation, everyone can!”

This statement is simply not realistic.  Poverty, health issues, and other afflictions affect different people in a multitude of different ways.  While it’s nearly impossible to predict how a single individual will react to a given affliction, we are very familiar with how most people will respond given a set of unfortunate circumstances.  Most people born in poverty will stay in poverty.  People who suffer from abusive upbringings are more likely to be abusers.  And so on and so on.

With this, I want to be honest for a moment and tell about my story.  My parents both came from middle class working families… by no means poverty stricken, but by no means well-to-do.  My parents parted ways when I was 3, and despite hard work and dedication, both struggled mightily to make ends meet.  My mother took on nearly all of the financial burden in raising me, as we moved from cheap apartment to cheap apartment, trying to get by.  I remember her getting home at 9pm after an incredibly long day at work and looking in the nearly-bare cupboards, only to make tuna sandwiches for dinner.  By the time I was 6, I knew when my mother, despite her best efforts, was struggling to make ends meet.  I could see it on her face, and feel it in every action.  Having very little income, no health insurance, no savings… it changed her.  It changed us.  I knew at such an early age what it was to struggle, to be financially insecure, and there is simply no way I can express how deeply that still runs.

When I was 8 years old, I was diagnosed with A.L.L. Leukemia, and went through 3 years of chemotherapy and radiation.  To me, as bad as it was, it was simply something I just went through.  I can’t imagine what it was like for my mother, having to balance a career with variable income, a sick child and little to no outside help.  To this day, I don’t know how she did it.  But I saw it affect her, every day, and in turn, it affected me.  The financial piece of my illness and our continuing fight to stay above water was, to me, much more scary than the disease itself.

My mom went on Medicaid for financial assistance with the overwhelming medical costs.  Contrary to common belief, this is not an easy process.  Social workers asked my mother probing and personal questions, demeaned her, and dehumanized her.  I never saw her more nervous than when she had to go visit a social worker.  She is a woman of great pride and strength… to have to ask for help was not in her nature, and being belittled for it was even worse.  But she had no choice, she did the only thing she could to keep her son cancer-free.

My mom made the choice to stop receiving financial assistance with my medical expenses as soon as I was free of treatment… in part because it was the right thing to do, and in part because it was simply a dehumanizing process.  For her, continuing being financially insecure was almost less difficult.

Fast forward a bit… eventually, we rose out of poverty, though money was still extremely tight.  I got healthy and was able to live a somewhat “normal” childhood.  But it took some time to get my feet under me as a young adult.  I wasn’t very good at paying bills, and while I had a stable job for a long time, it didn’t pay much… we went years without raises as the company I worked for was losing business, and all of a sudden a small paycheck became an unlivable income with cost of living rising and my income actually decreasing.  Once again, I was in the throws of extreme financial insecurity.  My mom helped a lot in this time, but she was still financially insecure herself.

It took me a while, but I finally got myself on track.  And when I say on track, I mean getting by.  I got married this past year, and my wife and I live reasonably in an apartment with both of us holding down multiple jobs.

But I still feel it.  It’s there.  That feeling when I see my bank account running low for one reason or another, that feeling of dread, bordering on depression.  I am transported back to when I was 6 and my mom had to fight just to put food on the table.  Only now, 30 years later do I realize how much living in poverty still affects me today.  On the flip side, when I have a surplus of money, I’m not just happy… there is almost an internal calm, with a tremendously grateful emotional response that I keep very hidden.  To not have to struggle for everything quite the way that we used to is the greatest feeling.  I quietly become very angry with anyone who says “money doesn’t buy you happiness.”  I assure you, it does.  I am genuinely 100% happier to have a stable income, and to be able to afford what I need in this world in contrast to the alternative.  I know what that alternative is, and let me tell you, it still haunts me to this day.

If you’ve lasted though my 1000+ plus words of my “special interest” story, here’s the part where I will differ from sensational portrayals we see on prime time TV today.  First off, I will acknowledge my privilege… I am a white male.  I had a college-educated mother who came from a middle class working family, and thus had the life skills necessary to face adversity.  She was super human in her efforts, and while outside support from extended family and friends wasn’t tremendously abundant, it was there.  I grew up in a safe area and had some great friends.  I went to community college for two years, and then a solid but cheap 4-year college and got my degree.  Because I had parents that made education a priority, the expectation that I would pursue higher education was a given, not an exception.

I acknowledge that, with all the things in my life that have been difficult, I have benefited from so many “head starts” that had nothing to do with me, my efforts or my ability to transcend.  I truly believe that I should be a statistic, that my poor but loving and determined mother and other variables that were in my favor negated the horrific effects of poverty and illness.  I admit that my transcendence has nothing to do with me and everything to do with the fact that I had a strong set of variables around me, almost like instructions of privilege, guiding me through.  If I had been born to drug-addicted parents, or into a gang-ruled neighborhood, I know in my heart I would not have had the strength to overcome.  I know that if I didn’t receive the love that I did, or the moral guidance my parents put forward, I likely would have succumbed to a misguided crowd, and perhaps even a life of extreme deviance.

And even with all this privilege, all these things that worked in my favor, I admit I still struggle with the “post-poverty” stress triggers in my environment today.  I have to fight the anger I feel when people who have never struggled talk about “those people.”  I have to bite my tongue when people say poverty is a choice.  I have to calm my anxiety when I see my bank account fall below a certain point.

Our cities, communities, heck our country, is full of people in difficult situations, and while some are fortunate enough to be able to transcend their environments, most do not.  They do not because these morbid circumstances affect people in a way most could never understand or empathize with.  They are not fair, not just, and are not “what they deserve.”  They are circumstances that change your brain, change how you react and change the very fabric of your humanity.

Let’s stop treating poverty in our cities like it’s a choice.  Let’s start seeing areas of concentrated poverty as populations who’s basic needs have been neglected for generations.  Let’s see progress in our cities as a decrease in poverty as much as an increase in the number of cocktail bars.  More than anything, let’s see the transcendence of our poorest citizens as a collective, community-wide responsibility and an initiative.  No matter how much we want to believe those struggling with urban poverty can transcend, I assure you, they cannot do it alone… trust me, I know.