Growing Up Poor in America

I recently posted a picture of where I grew up on Facebook—half of a cramped cinder block house with about as much insulation as the average butterfly. I noted that my childhood SES (socioeconomic status) was working-class poor. This prompted Heather, a friend and former student—how I love to type that phrase!—to comment that she knew what I meant, but that I probably wouldn't have been considered poor in China, where she has lived. 

Heather is absolutely right. Except, of course, we don't measure our wealth vis-à-vis the Chinese. Poverty is always relative. We measure ourselves by what we have, lack, or desire within the small circles in which we rotate, not those far away on this spinning planet of ours. Metaphorically speaking, we either are the Joneses, better than they, or envy them. Sadly, no matter how far down the pole we slide, there's always someone lurking below who envies what we have. As the old film The Gods Must Be Crazy humorously revealed, in a world of handmade tools, a Coke bottle makes you a king. 

Poverty can be parsed, and it also changes over time. My memories are of being poor in the 1950s and early 1960s. Let's call the Joneses "middle class." My family wasn't desperate; we were, if you will, the upper strata of the poor. But the Joneses certainly reminded us we weren't their equals. Here's what I recall:

Food: The middle class ate nutritious food and plenty of it; the desperate poor relied upon Salvation Army meals and government surplus food. In the days before food stamps, welfare was government-issued bags of dried beans, powdered milk, tins of corned beef (with congealed fat), and paving-stone slabs of American cheese. My family sometimes had to rely on these, but usually we were a small cut above in the "buy food and make it stretch" category of thin stews, macaroni-based casseroles, and Ramen noodles in salty broth. There were no elementary school hot-lunch programs,  so my two brothers and me walked to a neighbor's house at noon—both of my parents worked. She fed us toasted white-bread Velveeta sandwiches that sometimes contained a piece of fried Lebanon bologna. I later surmised the bologna added protein to our diet, as Velveeta has almost no nutritional value. (Look it up—in a kinder society it would be banned!) We seldom went hungry, but we seldom felt satisfied. Poor food is high in salt, fat, sugar, and filler powders, hence the great irony in America that those who have the worst access to food are often pudgy—like I was around 6th grade.

Housing: Middle-class people owned their homes, we rented, and those even poorer lived in hellaciously awful "projects" run by slumlords. The local "project" was called Cardboard City, which should tell you all you need to know! But at least there weren't many homeless people in those days.  

Not enough money: For the middle class it meant they couldn't afford orthodontia*; for us it meant bills piled up, necessities were purchased on installment, and mom asked the landlord for a few weeks grace. The really poor moved a lot. (*To this day, you can tell the childhood SES of people over 50 by their dental work/non-work.)

Broken: The Joneses tossed it; we patched it. Torn jeans later became a grunge fashion statement, but for us it was reality. My first year of junior high school, I owned two pairs of school pants and when I burst the seat of one, it was sewn up the backside with heavy thread. No baseball bat was ever scrapped. If it split, we drilled screws into the barrel and taped it. Ditto baseballs, which were properly "tape balls."

Shoes: Middle-class kids had $10 Chuck Taylor Converse; we had sneakers from Endicott Johnson that were a buck a pair. And they came in colors that embarrassed the hell out of us: yellow, red, green, and bright blue. Yeah—those are cool now too. Not then! Like baseballs, sneakers didn't wear out until tape no longer held them together. Holes in the soles? Stuff cardboard inside and repeat as often as necessary. Pray for dry weather.

Desires: Instant gratification was for the Joneses. We got new stuff three times a year: Christmas, birthdays, and back-to-school sales. My parents were exceedingly generous and often did without to indulge me and my brothers, but the top three or so items on one's "dream" list were pretty much out of the question. A new bike was usually your brother's old bike. Really poor kids just walked.

Lessons: Middle-class kids had music, riding, sports, and dance lessons with private coaches. My world was public: school, playground, and ball fields, where I learned by observing. I learned to hit a curve ball by watching one of my not-so-bright friends repeatedly lean the wrong way and get hit by pitches. (I never did learn how to hit fastballs very well.) I also learned tennis  and guitar by watching. And, yes, I bought a Sears Silvertone on installment–one of the models not destined to become a collector's item.

Other Stuff: Middle-class kids wore fancy clothes and went to proms; we wore jeans to dances at the YMCA. Middle-class parents took showers before they went to work yet came home looking clean; ours took baths when they came home covered in grime. Middle-class kids went on vacations to exotic-sounding places; we went to Worcester to see my paternal relatives. Until I was 16, the most exotic place I had ever been was Atlantic City.

College: Guidance counselors assumed middle-class kids would go to college and that working-class kids might attend trade school (or enter the military) before entering the workforce. SES came into play even if you decided college sounded like a good idea. If you were rich, you looked at Penn. Middle-class kids went to Penn State, and my kind never bothered to think beyond a local state college. (No regrets—I got an amazing education at Shippensburg University, but I was stunned I was when my buddy John decided to go to whole way to Philadelphia to go to college.) Need I tell you that no guidance counselor ever advised me to go to college? (Fair enough—I had exactly the attitude toward them that they encouraged.)

I ask for no sympathy. Mine wasn't a Dickensian childhood—it was what I call a "paper cut" existence: small indignities that irritated and rubbed the wrong way. By the time the Sixties rolled around, it didn't bother me—partly because materialism was on the outs and people dressed worse than I by choice.  Poverty also stopped stinging when my friends and I reached our teen years, secured part-time jobs, and earned pocket change we spent on records, food, camping, and hanging out. Poverty taught me perseverance. I admired how much my mother did with so little. But I was always aware I wasn't a Jones.

Maybe I never will be. I've got plenty of dough now and, as an educator and writer who owns his own home, has cool toys (guitars, cameras, books, computers), and extensive travel under my belt, I'm objectively a member of the upper middle class. But I still don't understand middle-class people. They often seem vain and shallow. Mostly they seem selfish, heartless whiners who utter pious banalities, moan about their taxes, and hate the poor. They don't have the slightest idea of what poverty means. Just like I have no idea what it means to be poor in China, or be a slum dog in Kolkata. Like I said, poverty is always relative. But I still have a hard time equating a lack of orthodontia with deprivation.  

Rob Weir

No comments: