I have, for as long as I can remember, tried to pretend not to be poor.
You don’t have to smoke or have bad teeth or live in a trailer park to be poor. You don’t have to say “ain’t” instead of “isn’t” or “seen” instead of “saw”. You also don’t have to be homeless or car-less or live in government housing. You don’t have look like you don’t have it together. It just takes some unexpected medical bills, a car accident, or an attempt at starting a business which flops. American poverty has a lot of different faces. This one is mine.
I don’t know when I first noticed that my family was poor. I must have been quite young, not older than four or five. I remember sitting at the top of the basement stairs when I was supposed to be in bed, listening to my parents’ argument about finances. They weren’t yelling or even loud, but they might as well have been. I remember empty kitchen cupboards, perfect for playing hide-and-seek. I remember food that didn’t come from a grocery store. I remember hating powdered milk and the kind of canned vegetables that I’m pretty sure no one has ever liked. Does anyone actually eat creamed corn?
When I was a kid, getting brand new clothing was an event. Most of what I wore were hand-me-downs from my sister or my mom’s friends with older children. Otherwise, it was from thrift stores. Target and Kohl’s seemed high-end. I will not pretend that I wasn’t delighted when I’d open up an entire trash bag full of clothes my size. I didn’t care if someone else had worn them before; the sheer volume of clothing was exhilarating. Despite this, I had learned that clothes played a significant role in how people perceived me.
We pick up on this from a young age. Boys want to wear the right sports jersey or tennis shoes. Girls need the latest hair accessories or brand of jeans. It is astounding how much of our identity is expressed and adopted through the clothes we wear.
It didn’t take long for me to develop both a contempt for youth fashion norms and an advanced sense of style, especially once I was old enough to work a summer job and could pay for my own clothes. Even before this, when I still thought I wanted to wear band t-shirts, flared jeans, and Vans, I had begun trying to conceal that I was poor. I discovered that people around me didn’t quite get what I meant when I said my parents couldn’t afford something.
One incident still stands out to me. I was spending the day with a friend from church. She had instructed me not to eat too much of whatever we were snacking on, because her parents were poor, and they needed to save money. I was a little confused, because we had gotten the snack from a pantry packed with food in the brand new house that her parents had just built. That just didn’t really seem like being poor to me. She explained that they were poor because they had just built the house. I couldn’t articulate at the time what was wrong with her comparing her parents’ financial situation to mine, but it just didn’t quite add up to me.
My house growing up, while owned by my parents, was in a constant state of disrepair. The bathroom was unfinished for many years; the kitchen had no flooring; the front steps were crumbling; we had remodeled the upstairs, replacing the breaking vegetable board with dry wall, but had never quite finished. We had only three bedrooms for our eight-person family.
Looking back, I understand why my mom would have melt-downs and go on cleaning rampages. Having a clean house was the best she could do when she couldn’t afford to fix the water-damaged ceiling or buy us new bed linens.
After my experience with my friend complaining about being poor in a completely failed attempt at being relatable, I decided to talk about it as little as possible. There was a long list of things my peers at school had that I knew I couldn’t have. This was especially apparent in my honors classes, where my classmates usually came from small, middle class families, who had lived in the city for generations.
Knowing the power of clothing, I invested in my wardrobe. I got cute shoes, fancy shirts and skirts. I dressed with sophistication. It wouldn’t be enough to fit in. Fitting in was for boring people. I had to out-dress those around me. Of course, I was an awkward teenager, so I think the closest I came to real sophistication was getting a black, velvet dress from Macy’s and wearing it to my winter formal. Otherwise, I was probably just mostly awkward.
Instead of being a normal senior in high school, I went to France. This might seem alarming given the picture I’ve painted of my childhood. But you won’t be surprised that I did extensive research and found the cheapest program so I could spend my year abroad. I don’t know how or why my parents contributed as much as they did, but I got there. It was one of the most difficult things I have done, and the reward was well worth it. I got to sit in coffee shops and sip Espresso, see Paris twice, Spain twice. I made friends and flirted with a boy name Valentin while he played the piano. I ate incredible food, learned how to cook some of it too. I learned about fashion, and got way ahead of the game, wearing skinny jeans and scarves well before they caught on in the States. I fell in love with one of my host families, and still get homesick for them. I did almost all of this for free. Despite my 70 EURO per month allowance, my life was so very, very rich.
I returned from France with an even more advanced sense of style and an acceptance letter to the college of my choice. I had become so very good at pretending not to be poor that I decided to go to a private college. Anything that I didn’t get covered with grants and scholarships, I paid for with student loans. Every year there was a shortage in my financial aid package, and I had to do battle with them to find out how to make up the difference, which really just resulted in more loans. This was embarrassing, and there were many tearful phone calls to my parents.
One nice thing about college is that almost everyone is kind of poor, so most of my experience felt like it had more of an equalizing element. However, one evening, during a conversation with a group of students over tea and toast, the subject turned to class and education. They were speculating on the likelihood of the poor being able to succeed in education, given the typical differences in social norms. I remember feeling as though they were missing something important. They were right that a lot of people who grow up in a certain income bracket would probably have a more difficult time getting to and succeeding in college. Their parents are more likely not to value education in the first place, so that as young as kindergarten, they are already behind their peers. This gap increases over time, making college a non-option even before anyone ever suggests it. However, they were missing another option: people who were raised by educated people, but were still poor. I tried to describe the nuances of pretending to be a member of the middle class. I failed. The group didn’t understand how I could be sitting there in my nice clothes being poor. I was playing the part too well.
This is still an issue today. When I wasn’t working, and I was homeless at the end of last year, I stressed about finding a midpoint between struggling-to-get-by and responsible-adult-who-isn’t-just-looking-for-handouts when I signed up for food assistance. Meanwhile, I am well versed in bourgeois conversation. What’s more is I have a degree and can talk circles around most people. How could anybody guess that in the two years since graduating college, my average income has been about $14,000?
I don’t know why it matters that I try to pretend not to be poor. I try to eat organic and free-range foods. I talk about culture. I attended college. I get good haircuts. I even get massages sometimes. I go out to restaurants with my friends and offer to pay for coffee. Sometimes, I buy the good butter instead of the cheap stuff. Maybe I shouldn’t do these things. Maybe I should face my poverty, and tell my friends that all they get is a card for their birthday, as long as I can afford that. Maybe it’ll just be a letter written on some borrowed printer paper. Maybe I should live that way. Why do I pretend not to be poor? I think it’s because I want to connect to people; I want to be seen and heard. I want to have something to offer and not be constantly taking.
Once, in college, I was really running low on cash, and a bunch of my friends got together at my apartment. I hadn’t seen most of them in quite awhile, and we didn’t really have anywhere to hang out, unless I opened up my living room. I made all the food I had left because they were hungry, with no idea how I was going to get more food. What I offered my guests was supposed to last me another week. We still had a ton of fun. We laughed and talked, and people complimented my cooking. Fortunately, the next day, I got an e-mail informing me of extra grant money that hadn’t been included previously in my financial aid package, and I got the funds I needed to make rent and buy groceries for the rest of the quarter within the next couple days.
I don’t ever want to do that again. I don’t want to be so hopelessly broke and ashamed of it that I invite people over and offer them something that I absolutely cannot afford to give. However, I am so glad they came, so glad they enjoyed the food, so glad we spent time together, connecting.
Pretending not to be poor is a form of hiding. It’s fueled by shame. It’s fueled by the fear of being disconnected. Most people, when they learn about my financial situation, get really uncomfortable. They either say something completely oblivious or insensitive, or they change the subject. Pretending not to be poor is an attempt to avoid this experience, to make the world think I am a capable adult, to make myself think so as well. And in spite of this, I have learned that generosity is better than buying more razors to shave my legs. Connecting is better than having a new computer or having an expensive hobby. I can go an extra month without getting a haircut if it means I can go out to drinks one extra time with a group of people dear to me.
This is my story. I don’t want to pretend any more. Poverty is about the state of my bank account. It is not who I am. I am courageous. I am daring greatly.
2 thoughts on “Pretending not to be Poor”
Claire, your words are beautiful. Our family is very similar to yours, our house is not in disrepair only because my husband learned carpentry while working with his step father to create a home for their family out of a hollowed out trailer home. His mother always made any place she lived lovely. My upbringing was poor, as I was born to a young, 16 year old mother, while my father was in Vietnam. However, my mother always made dinner and we were always clean and our needs were met. Today, in order to be home for my family, we live on one income and have taught our girls the beauty of thrift and clearance and making garage sale and curb side furniture look shabby chic.
There’s something beautiful about a person sacrificing next week’s food for this evening’s company, even if she is pretending not to be poor. Your words are powerful and I can relate on so many levels. Thank you.