About People and Poverty

I want to tell a story, and I’m sure most people won’t like it for one reason or another. If you stop reading after the first paragraph or two, I won’t blame you. It’s hard to read, and says a lot of bad things about humanity. But I like to think that it also provides necessary perspective that helps society see where it needs to improve.

It’s about my family.

In a lot of ways, we’re not good people. My uncles are unashamedly racist, my aunt is a master manipulator, and my mother is almost incapable of supporting herself or finishing anything. All of them have one or several psychological problems, stemming from depression and bipolarism, body dysmorphic disorder, or outright schizophrenia. Every single one. And it’s no accident.

It all started with my grandmother, who by all accounts, is one of the most terrible people I’ve ever met. Her second husband, you see, was a pedophile and a rapist, as my mother and her sister discovered before they were even ten years old. The first time she was raped, my mother made the fateful mistake of telling her mother. She was betrayed in the worst way a child can be. Her mother accused her of being a husband-stealing slut, and broke her nose.

Ever since that day, she fostered a simmering hate for my mother; mom’s childhood and everything after it suffered tremendously. From that point on, my mother would learn she was worthless, could do nothing right, and was beaten frequently for something as innocuous as improperly washing a dish. My aunt saw what happened and learned from my mother’s mistake, and thus began her own defense mechanism of influencing situations to avoid a similar fate. My uncles were faced with an impossible amount of cognitive dissonance: believe their parents were terrible people that would abuse innocent children, or that the children somehow deserved it. Their own beatings at childish mistakes helped decide which interpretation was correct.

Thus began a legacy that continues to this day. My grandmother was a lifelong smoker and finally died at the age of 72, but the damage she caused lives on. I’m honestly surprised I ever met her, but my mother was just as damaged as the rest of the kids. Her belief that her suffering was deserved, meant she saw her past as just another family quirk. I like to think my hate for her mother rubbed off on her, but I’ll never really know for sure. Abuse can be fantastically enduring, and people are weak to indoctrination.

As a result, my mother didn’t really know how to raise me. Were I a less precocious child, I probably would have been deep into the drug scene, not to mention rebellious and resentful of everything and everyone for having a better life. Instead, I was incensed by our situation to study and dig my way out of poverty by any means necessary. But in the meantime the damage, as I said, was enduring. My mother had very little confidence, no higher education, and no parental advice on how to advocate herself or work within the system. She was basically trained to be poor, because society demands adherence to somewhat strict rules necessary for smooth operation. Anyone who doesn’t fit that mold is discarded.

So we lived in trailers. Or with her boyfriends. Or, for a while, in a car. At one point, I slept on a couch for about a year when I was five. Mom would work multiple jobs, and since she couldn’t always afford a babysitter, sometimes I’d spend hours just hanging out at the 7-11 where she worked. It wasn’t uncommon for me to sleep in the stock room in the back. I can only imagine how impotent my mother must have felt back then, being forced to raise her child that way. But the social safety net is thin, and she was loath to use it more than necessary. If anyone is curious as to my vehement anger at our treatment of the poor, it starts here.

But that wasn’t all. Because her self confidence was so terrible, and the fact she never learned what made a healthy relationship, she dated and married a string of verbally or physically abusive alcoholics. My heart condition made me a very weak and sickly child. These men told me that I would be better off dead because I was sick all the time, or rubbed my nose in soiled underwear because I had a weak bladder before I was three. My father abandoned us before I was born, and isn’t even listed on my birth certificate. I’ve never met the man, nor do I even know his name. As a result, mom never received any form of child support, not that he would have paid it, given his demonstrated lack of responsibility.

Now my mom is in her late 50’s. Due to her age, lack of higher education and marketable skills, and fragmented or absent work history, she has almost no job prospects. She’s been subsisting for the last twenty years on side jobs and whatever she can make by working out of her home as a seamstress. As a result, she has no retirement savings, can’t pay her rent regularly, and can barely afford food. She just told me she finally broke down and went to a food bank last week.

I help when I can. Rent is expensive these days, and I already have my own to worry about. But I make sure she has a roof over her head, as dismal as a run-down one-room Chicago basement apartment can be. Her Chicago Ventra card is always loaded. When she asks, I help with bills, though I grumble a bit. I feel bad about giving her lectures about finances, knowing her irresponsibility and lack of foresight isn’t wholly her fault, but I’m only human. This is the world we live in.

If you’ve ever wondered why I’m painfully practical, am prone to completely unexpected bouts of anger, and complain about almost every dime I spend, there’s a long and sordid history behind it. Age and perspective have tamed some of that, but in a properly constructed society where people actually cared about each other, either my mother or I would have been intercepted before our problems became so deeply ingrained. It’s almost as if society is driven to facilitate the implements of its own demise.

In another universe, I could have been much different. Without a heart condition, perhaps I would have had enough energy to violently rebel against my situation, making trouble for everyone in my wake. I did that anyway, but only half-heartedly due to my reluctance to permanently damage my future prospects. One of my uncles wasn’t so restrained; given his past, he cared about little, and got in trouble and fights constantly into his 20’s. Yet it didn’t have to be that way. If the community cared, and really paid attention, all of my grandmother’s children would have long been relocated to good homes before the damage was irreversible.

Instead the problem was ignored and propagated to yet another generation, and then another. Mine is hardly an isolated case, regardless of how it might seem. People like me get labeled as Trailer Trash, meth heads, or shiftless poor. People that fall through the cracks garner only resentment instead of the assistance they need to prevent the rot from corrupting our society. Our careless and cavalier attitude compounds the situation and fosters nothing but resentment between our artificial castes. It’s a troublesome brew that I’ve seen both sides of, and even though I’m middle class now, I vehemently hate our society and everything it represents.

In my mind, I’ll always be poor and wondering where my next meal will come from. I’ll always be that little kid who didn’t get a deadly heart condition corrected until I was six because we couldn’t afford the surgery. I’ll always be skeptical and leery of everyone’s intentions, and internally scream “Fuck you for judging me!” at every perceived slight. My rage will never be sated, no matter how collected I may seem on the surface.

Now imagine I was still poor. Imagine I still had nothing to lose. Imagine the damage I could do if I were backed into a corner. Just visit a poor neighborhood, and you don’t have to imagine. The resentment is almost palpable, and threatens to boil over at any provocation. I don’t condone when these people lash out, but I understand their motivation. Desperation is a dangerous thing, and every time we cut the social safety net in the name of fiscal responsibility, we bring the knife closer to our own throats.

My mom, my family, and I are merely symptoms of a much more insidious underlying problem. I wish I had an answer to any of this, but I don’t. But if we can’t even acknowledge the symptoms, we can hardly begin to develop a cure. It really does take a village to raise a child, and unfortunately, our village needs to stop and examine the children it’s been raising. We would all benefit from a little more care, and a lot less callous disregard. I’ve never understood why we don’t try harder, given the risk to reward ratio.

Given the season, please take the opportunity to give a little more love to your family. If the situation arises where you can share that love with someone else who needs it, please do so. A little can go a long way. I can assure you it won’t go unappreciated.