I don’t want to tell you I’m poor because I already know what you’ll think of me. You’ll think I’m lazy. You’ll think I’m low class. You’ll also probably wonder why I’m smiling in my pictures, if it’s so bad.
You’ll probably think I’m not trying hard enough. You might think I spend too much time online — and wait, if I’m that poor, how do I even have a computer or internet service at my home? Perhaps you’ll even wonder what I put in my grocery cart that might be covered by the SNAP program…
What I do want you to know, however, is that this could be your life. Easily.
In the United States, we have programs that elicit hisses and boos from so many for simply providing some basic needs in the lives of those struggling in a society where the minimum wage is not a livable wage. So many of us are an injury or layoff away from needing this help and that group grows with every housing crisis, environmental disaster, or other unexpected losses. Being in this situation was and is out of my control and it is an absolutely consuming and demanding reality.
Not long ago, I had the things we are told equate success in this society. Living in a suburban home, I worked from there making well above what many with my background and lack of formal education did. With one child, it was financially easier for me than most to keep costs down in that area. I’d bought an older car, used, and paid it off so the monthly expenses were further reduced. I paid attention to money going in and out and felt there wasn’t a lot of waste of what, to many, would be ample resources.
Unfortunately, a number of factors, including divorce and chronic illness, brought that life to an end and I had to relocate my child and myself to a remote desert town and start over.
When choosing a new life, I knew I had to create one with certain things. I needed to pay bills and be certain my kid had health insurance. After interviewing at a number of places, I had to sit down and determine the best option for keeping my family fed and in good health, with pre-existing conditions also being a factor. Ultimately, there was only one job that could guarantee those benefits and a full time schedule with the option to work ample overtime — a privatized prison.
I started training as soon as possible, knowing those hours would be fixed at 40 for eight weeks but would be more upwardly flexible once I was on the floor. Working in a prison was not something I had ever envisioned for myself and the pay was lower than I’d received for years, but I needed the benefits. Living in a remote area meant I couldn’t explore online work any longer, as the only internet service in town wouldn’t support minimum requirements of companies offering virtual jobs. Being so far from a city of size also meant I had to consider the total cost of driving 45 miles one way to get to an entry-level job.
Overtime was available as soon as I’d graduated, and it wasn’t just staying a bit longer after each 12-hour shift, it was being called in on days off — even being called to come in immediately while standing in a laundromat waiting for my one uniform to get clean and dry, dress in the car, and head back to the prison. Even in a rural area with few work opportunities, the prison was always short-staffed. Any emergency that cropped up was always a strain on the entire facility and those working there. Breaks were not possible for many either, as there was no one to cover the absence of another correctional officer to leave for any length of time. Safety and well-being were always compromised.
It didn’t take long before it wore on me as it was so demanding. I was always happy to get the bigger paychecks and thereby create more financial stability for my family. I was afraid of declining any requests to take on more work and I was even more afraid to ask for help. And one day, I had to.
Everything caught up with me and I needed a break, I needed relief. When I asked for help, I was told they were too short-staffed and to keep working. I took a deep breath and started pushing through, but my body was ready to give up. Then, it did.
As I was surrounded by repeat-offender felons, I collapsed onto the hard slab of the prison floor with no warning. It was like I had blinked, but my eyes didn’t flutter open again. I fell and I fell hard. Not in a heap on the floor, but like a tree being felled straight and rigid with determination to stay upright, yet no means of stopping a forceful collision with the ground. My shoulder hit first, but I was told the sound of my head and jaw connecting with the concrete made the most gruesome sound.
I was immediately brought to the hospital for drug and diagnostic testing, and all seemed clear, so I returned to work a few days later although I was in a great deal of pain. I worked another three weeks trying to get through these injuries I couldn’t afford to have, scared of what this would mean for my future. In a return visit to the hospital, I was put on medical leave for serious injuries and surgery was soon scheduled for me.
Ultimately, I became completely disabled. Over time, these injuries led to even more complications for me and I had to reassess what was no longer possible for me to do. But I didn’t want to ask for help, to be helpless, and certainly not poor. I had to leave the desert and try to find some way to continue to make ends meet. I was creative and resourceful, making every effort possible to try to live more than just merely survive.
I hacked at things that smacked of luxury and tried to redefine a new normal for my family. We didn’t even have a TV, so we didn’t need to spend money on cable. Not only did I cook more and eat out rarely, I also created almost everything from scratch — I was even making shampoo, hygiene essentials, and cosmetics. Clothing was always secondhand, everything bought was marked down, or I could utilize a coupon for it. I used loyalty offers and sold what I had of value, even clothing. I worked on odd projects to fund small things or earn rewards.
Over time, it just wasn’t enough to sustain us. Again, I had to ask for help. This time, I had to admit I couldn’t feed my child and needed assistance. At no point was any of this easy. I hadn’t been lazy. It wasn’t that I hadn’t tried hard enough. And I was ashamed.
That feeling of shame was almost tactile in our lives from that point. From my child skipping free lunch at school for fear that others would notice only to arrive home starving and tired, to trying to avert the glares of cashiers scrutinizing what groceries we bought with our SNAP card. And even though I still tried to make everything healthy, fresh, and from scratch, it was nice to have things like ice cream sometimes. But I felt so guilty.
I stood in line at the Food Pantry to get canned goods, to pick through rotten and molding fruits and vegetables trying to find pieces salvageable enough to put on our dinner plates, and brushed off expiration dates on food most would simply put in the garbage. I never brought my child because the shame of what she did know was already too great. Being poor does make everything harder and there is such little joy in it.
I don’t want to tell you I’m poor and disabled because you’ll see me in a different light, you’ll doubt my efforts and contributions, and because I will be part of a group that this society deems un-valuable. I don’t want you to think those things about me because it adds to my guilt and embarrassment in an already depressing situation. If you don’t know I’m poor, you won’t resent what I might have or what I do with my time. You won’t look at the food I eat and think I don’t deserve it.
Because, if I’m poor and disabled, I must have done something to deserve that, right?