What I want you to know about what it's like to be poor

What I Want You to Know is a series of reader submissions. It is an attempt to allow people to tell their personal stories, in the hopes of bringing greater compassion to the unique issues each of us face. If you would like to submit a story to this series, click here. Today’s guest post is by C Lo.

I want you to know what it's like to be poor. Not the kind of poor that's "I can't afford that new purse" but the kind of poor that's "I might have to steal a roll of toilet paper from my workplace" or " I forgot to pack my lunch so I guess I'm not eating till dinner".

I want you to know what that's like...but it's hard and complicated. And the nature of our culture makes me want to put all these qualifiers in it about why it's ok to be poor. About how I am doing my best.

So I guess the first thing I want you to know about being poor is that it's socially stressful. Like...really, really stressful.

I watched a couple in the store the other day struggle with their EBT card (food stamps). The checker told them that the EBT system had been down all day. She'd swipe the card, and it wouldn't go through. And the couple is standing there, the line is getting longer. They are holding up the line, they don't know if they are going to be able to go home with food they need.

Can you imagine what that must be like?

Now add in folks who have the mentality of "No one should get handouts! These people are all scamming the system! They could get a job if they wanted!"

I was a welfare mom 15 years ago. And I lived through what that couple lived through. Many times I had people behind me in line making snotty comments, or worse, occasionally people would approach me and tell me how I should be spending "their" tax dollars. Getting cereal on my WIC coupons once, I had a woman tell me that I should not be wasting "HER" dollars on that since, obviously, my young baby couldn't eat it (WIC coupons are good for specific foods only, and plain, grain cereals are one of them).

It's hard not knowing if you can eat. It's really hard not knowing if you can feed your kids. Add on to that the pressure of having all eyes on you every time you need a gallon of milk? Add to that the pressure of being fully aware that people ARE JUDGING you in that grocery store? It's....overwhelming. A simple trip to the store for milk can raise your blood pressure to unhealthy levels.

Can you imagine just running to the store for milk or cereal being that stressful of an ordeal?

It's not just stranger pressure....it's friend and family pressure.

It's not polite to talk about finances. When you get invited to lunch with a girlfriend and you can't because your bank account is overdrawn, what are you supposed to do? You can only make excuses for missing so many events or outings before you stop getting invited. And people think you are snubbing them. What's the alternative? Saying "I'm broke." Think about it...you tell friends, "Yeah, I can't afford the gas to drive there, and I couldn't afford to get anything because I literally have nothing in my bank account" and then things get reeeeally uncomfortable.

It's stressful. I don't want to make people uncomfortable. And I don't want people to think I don't want to spend time with them. All the while both things are happening and I can't do anything about it.

Being poor is isolating. And stressful.

And then you add in kids.

Recently, I hid a party invitation intended for my boys because 1) we couldn't afford the gas to get to the party and 2) we couldn't afford a present. How do you RSVP that? "Sorry, but the gas to your party would cripple my family this month".

My kids bring home all sorts of fundraiser things for their school. And they are shown all these prizes they can win when they sell the cookie dough or wrapping paper or whatever the item is that month. Heck they get some cheap little prize if they make just one sale. And I can't do that for them.

Because at the end of the day, I lay awake in bed with my husband figuring out if we need to sell things in order to be able to cover groceries this month.

I guess that's the other thing I want you to know about being poor...it's unrelenting. The stress, the anxiety, the feeling like you're failing your children...it never stops. My kids don't get to go to parties, or have a lot of friends over. We don't get to take them on lots of outings. We recently had to move out of the neighborhood we've been in all their lives because it was just too expensive. My boys need haircuts. And new shoes. My oldest son needs a coat and my daughter has a sweet 16 coming up that I have no idea how I'm going to make it special for her.

When I mention off handedly that my son needs a new coat, I have friends tell me of these great deals at Kohl's or Old Navy. I can't afford to go to Old Navy and buy a coat for my kid. Can you imagine what that's like?

And if you have kids, you know...it never stops. They get older, more expensive. I try hard to focus on today, and focus on the fact that we have a roof over our heads and food in the cabinets. But sometimes the future looks overwhelming to me. Sometimes I always feel like my life is going to be selling off my nice things for grocery money.

One last thing I want you to know about being poor...judging doesn't help. I don't mean to sound cliché, but I always see comments around this topic that say things like "If they worked hard enough, they could support themselves' or the terrible "Don't have kids you can't afford."

I'm tempted to spell out my story of how I landed here today, but I'm not going to. Know I agonize over it. Know I work really hard. I have a college degree(first in my family). My husband works hard. It's just....not that easy. It's not that black and white.

As Christmas approached this year, I realized we were going to have to apply for food stamps. And we can because we live below the poverty level.

We live in that stressful, anxious, desperate space of not knowing how we're going to pay our bills. We live in the space of not being able to give our kids the things we want them to have. We live in a space of constant sacrifice and isolation and not always being confident that things will turn around.

What I want you to know about being poor is that...it's hard. It's really, really hard. Take all the normal crap life throws at you and add at least 10 times more stress.

I don't say any of this you invoke sympathy, but maybe to instill a little empathy. However a poor person got where they are, it is what it is. You can't change the past. What I should have done doesn't matter now. All we can do is move forward, and hopefully when you encounter a poor person you can remember that and think that, despite what things may look like when you pass that stranger in the store, you don't know how hard or stressful their life is that day.

So, as the saying goes, be kind...because you don't know the battle they are fighting that day.



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