We are driving to school
My daughter, from way in the back of the minivan, pipes up:
Mom, are we poor??
It’s been a week of meals made solely out of potatoes and condiments, of saying no, we can’t do that because we don’t have the money, no, you can’t go see the movie your friends are going to, no we can’t sign you up for gymnastics this session, no, no, no. In the face of us not being able to afford what ALL her friends have,how do I explain to an eight year old that compared to ninety per cent of the planet, the fact that she as a girl, will receive an education, the fact that we have a flush toilet and clean drinking water, the fact that she has shoes on her feet and a lunch in her bag makes us wealthy, blessed.
Do I tell her that her life expectancy is double what it would be were she born into a family in Northern Afghanistan and that is a fantastic bit of karmic luck? Sure, she has to share a bedroom, but its (mostly) heated in the winter. Her toys come mostly from rummage sales, but she has barrels full of them. No we are not poor. We still eat three meals a day and we have a roof over our heads, and increasing numbers of Americans can’t say that.
But compared to where we used to be, when she was in private school and we went on family vacations and went out to eat, and got gifts for the holidays, and she could have any breakfast cereal made, well, yes, we have had to cut back. Wayyyyyy back. Compared to when she could take dance AND gymnastics AND soccer, we have had to eliminate all non-essentials. The hardest for me to give up back then was the cleaning lady, but that was almost 2 years ago—our recession got the jump on the National zeitgeist. I don’t mind the generic rot gut coffee and dinners of starchy foods as much as I mind the condition my house has fallen into without a weekly miracle worker. This month we are about to give up the health club, having a land line telephone and my own beloved ballet classes. I feel good about being vegetarian by necessity and how much less I am driving. I love my new outdoor clothesline that is so green and makes the clothes smell like spring air. Not feeling so good about turning the heat off on April 15th because we can’t afford the gas bill, and I prefer to turn it off before they shut me off. (It’s been cold in Chicago this spring) If my husband does not find work soon, we will have to give up even more: summer camp and possibly the therapists and then step down on everyone’s meds, because the copays and deductibles are decimating the bare bones budget we have.
This world I am living in is almost beyond my comprehension. I have a master’s degree from the Ivy League, have worked hard every day since I was eleven and I HAVE A GOOD JOB with a decent salary, and we can’t afford to live in this community on what I make. My husband’s entire industry seems to have evaporated over night and despite obvious talent that is universally admired, he cannot get paid to do what he does best. All the rules we were taught, that we lived by, have changed. I have just given up trying to figure it out, and I just now try to get through each day. Without spending any money.
The one thing I can never get used to is the shame. I cannot bear the embarrassment of not being able to cut it. In a land where the prevailing attitude is you pull yourself up by your bootstraps and that the economy rewards those who are smart and do a good job, the implication is that if you can’t afford it a) you are lazy, stupid and morally suspect or b) you don’t deserve it. So we quietly just do without, because asking for help is just too hard emotionally. It is to admit you are an abject failure.
It is especially difficult when you live in an economically diverse community like I do. There are mansions a few blocks from my house, and I know that my condo neighbors look with green envy on my big yard. Teachers at school keep asking for $6 here and $12 there for field trips and gifts for a volunteer, not knowing that we literally have no money in our house til next Thursday payday, and all that is probably spent at this point with the bills that are past due.
We just don’t have it. My kids can’t go on the field trip or the overnight or sign up for after school programs because we don’t have the money in a world that assumes that we have the money. We can’t go out and we hardly dare invite folks over because the cupboard is bare. We are not poor enough to qualify for scholarships and I am too embarrassed to ask for help. I also refuse to think of myself as poor. It is mortifying in this culture to Not Have it. I grew up as the least well off child in a wealthy neighborhood—and that’s why I started working when I was eleven. Instead of being subject to the horror of social ineptitude because I could not afford to go to the movies with my friends or shopping at the mall, I just could always say, I’m working. I swore, like Scarlet O’Hara, I would never be in that situation again, and nor would I subject my children to the shame and embarrassment, and well, here we are—and I just can’t get over it. We do not dare discuss the realities of class in this country, in this culture, but I feel so intently that I have been consigned to a completely different universe form the one I was living in just 3 years ago. I have falled several rungs down in the American ladder of classes, and there is almost no vocabulary even to discuss this.
And I never do answer my daughter’s question from the back of the van. Because I just have no words to talk about relative poverty to a second grader. I have no pithy platitudes that will make this better. I don’t have good answers for this. And so I stay silent.