On being raised poor

The group most openly abused by class prejudice are those in poverty. It is not surprising. They have the least political clout, the least economic influence, and are less well organized as a social group. And, because of their need they are more noticed in the wallets and purses of members of the other three classes. 

Frustration and anger of working and middle class people over federal transfer payments settled first on the tiny sum delivered to the poor, in particular to young, single mothers and to immigrants. A two-decade campaign of angry rhetoric led in 1996 to the abolition of AFDC (aid for families with dependent children), and deep cuts in eligibility for such programs as food stamps and Supplemental Social Security Income (1).

What are the strengths and struggles characteristic of poor people? What are the myths that get attached to poor people, and how are these myths held in place by the society at large? Many of the strengths, struggles and myths are illustrated in my interview with a woman who survived childhood poverty. No names here. She is quite successful now, but still struggling with the ghosts of her childhood. The following is a verbatim transcript of my interview, headlined by categories of survival skills and challenges that apply generally to raised poor people.

This interview is long by blog standards, but I think you’ll find it worth your time to read.


M. My dad’s grandparents were owning class. They owned a ship building company in Florida. When there wasn’t as much business for them, his grandpa became a carpenter. They were well off. He was raised by his mom and grandparents.
But, he loved to do carpentry, machinery, that kind of thing. That didn’t pay as much. And, he had alcohol problems. So, from what my brothers and sisters tell me, they were always fairly poor; but working class poor. I mean he would get fired from jobs because he kinda . . . he was very smart, but he had a know-it-all attitude. He would go in and see what was wrong, and want to just tell them what was wrong and what they should do to fix it. That didn’t go over real well. — And, I guess he drank off-and-on a lot.
So, they were always pretty poor growing up. Talking to my brothers and sisters. I’m the youngest of six.  My oldest sister is about fourteen years older than me. In the last few years I’ve been listening to their stories about growing up poor. I always thought they had it much better than me. Because my dad worked then.
When I was about three years old, he was in an accident at work. He worked in an airplane factory. They built the engines. They would move the engines from station to station on cables hanging from the ceiling. One day one of them broke loose from its mooring, and came swinging across the room, hit him in the back, and knocked him out. But, the company doctor just looked at him, sent him home, and said he was OK.
So, he worked for a year like that; until he was in pain so much of the time, he had to sleep in a recliner. He couldn’t lie flat. He finally went to a doctor, and it turned out he had a cracked vertebrae. This was before Workman’s Compensation
, so he got nothing, nothing.(2) They just fired him. And, he couldn’t get a job because of insurance. I asked him years later about how it happened. He told me the story. He said that nobody would have him because insurance wouldn’t cover him. He didn’t talk too much about it. When he said nobody would hire him, I said, “Why not.” And he said because “insurance wouldn’t cover me because I had injury.”

David: This is 1963 approximately?

M. Um hmm. Yeh, and I guess Workman’s Compensation was 1965 or something like that. I’m not sure. I’ve never looked it up and looked into why. I know he didn’t get anything for his accident, so I’m assuming that there was no Workman’s Compensation.
So, he couldn’t work. And for a long time I don’t know what he did. I was real little at the time. But, it was very, very rough. He was too proud to go on welfare, and my mom didn’t work. She didn’t even drive.
My older brothers and sisters were, you know, getting older and starting to get into some trouble. It’s rubbing off.
My mom had a nervous breakdown when I was five. She had to be hospitalized for close to a year. They were scared what was going to happen to the family. I don’t know who. Child Welfare or whatever, were talking about breaking up our family. I mean taking us away from them. We all went to live with different aunts and uncles. I went to live my grandmother and my great aunt. My brother lived with my dad and took care of him. It was a really, really rough time.
Then my mom got out and went back home. I was the first one to go back home. Just me. Because I was the easiest and the youngest.
I remember lying in bed one night, and hearing my mom and dad talking about how they didn’t know where they were going to get money for food. And, somebody mailed them fifty dollars. Anonymously. They were trying to figure out who it was, so they could pay this person back. They didn’t have enough money to buy food. – I guess by that time some of the other kids were living with us. –They were trying to figure out who it was. They thought it was the priest. They just talking about how they could pay whoever it was back.
So, my dad began taking government surplus food. At the time the government had been warehousing food. Cheese and milk and flour. The stuff was starting to go bad. They decided to give it to poor people. So, we got rancid butter, and sometimes the flour had bugs in it. If it wasn’t bad, my mom would sift out the weevils. If it were all bad, she’d give it to us to play with. – Ecch. I changed my mind. I don’t want to talk about this stuff after all.


We were kids. And we still managed to have a good time with our lives. We played with what we could find. It’s amazing what you can do with dirt. —
My dad. . . Our property came close to being condemned a number of times. Because my dad was a mechanic and machinist, and was also just, he would take whatever people were throwing away because it could be turned into money in some way. He always thought he’d fix it. So, we often had five or six junked cars on our property, and several junk refrigerators, and maybe fifteen or twenty lawn mowers — I had a fuckin’ junk yard at times. All the neighbors called and complained. They threatened to condemn our property, and so some of the brother-in-laws would haul stuff off.
But, we played in that stuff, and we had a wonderful time. Those cars were like magic submarines and space ships that could go all over the galaxy. And there was this one tree, it had a stove and a refrigerator, and some other old cast-off junk. We would turn it into this grand hotel kitchen. And, we would create these incredible meals out of dirt and weeds and the flour, and all that kind of stuff. We had a great time anyway. For the most part. But, it was hard because my dad—he was a real strong, smart person, but he didn’t know what to do.

And it was hard to not be able to succeed. He always was coming up with these great ideas. But he wasn’t able to make them happen. That was rough to see that this really smart person not being able to — be productive and be successful. That was really hard. — 

D. He was smart and good. — And productive. And he was working with an incredible handicap, too. And no help from the outside. —
I can see how proud of him you are. And he deserves it.

Lack of pretense:
We’re more consistent with what’s going on inside and what shows. There’s something good about that—I suppose. I know how yucky my world looks—how dirty and uneducated, and all the things society looks down on. Owning class people can keep hidden all the yucky stuff. They can look OK to the world. Whereas poor people’s faces are stuck in the mess. We can’t go shopping to take our minds off it. We can’t escape in ways that are available to people who have money.

Ability to love deeply and get close to people:
Jo and I cared a lot about each other, and did the best we could to reach out to each other. And, have a real, human, caring relationship that helped us both grow, in spite of all the garbage.

Compassion, generosity of spirit:
One time when I was about six or seven—when we were getting the government surplus food—my dad went to pick it up. He saw a black woman with four kids. She thought they were going to give her food, but there’d been some screw up with the paperwork, and they didn’t have anything for her, and she was just. . . you know, didn’t know what to do with her four kids. So my dad gave her some of our food. And my mom didn’t say much. You could see on her face. She was at her wits end. She didn’t know how she was going to feed us five kids. He was at his wits end, too. But he couldn’t have left this person without food. And, he felt bad that he hadn’t been able to give her half. — give her more. But, he brought enough for us to eat. We were going to be OK. He couldn’t leave this person without food. I remember watching, and understanding my mom’s point of view because she was trying to feed us. And understanding my dad’s point of view, too. He knew he couldn’t let this person go hungry.

Strong desire to set things right:
I want people to know. A lot of people grow up with the idea that people are just out for themselves, that they don’t care about each other. There’s just so much cynicism. That’s not the way it has to be! It makes me crazy sometimes, when I hear people talking like that. That we’re just animals basically, and if there isn’t this rigid control of the rabble, and so on. Oh my god! They don’t have a fucking clue! They have no idea — God! How were you raised that you could think that?! I’ll tell you how I was raised!


Feeling valueless:
I have this chronic feeling of not being good enough. And, I have this feeling now that whatever I’m telling you is of no value. You’re going to be so disappointed when you leave. I’m sure you’re sitting there thinking, “When is she going to get to something I can use?”

Judged not good:
I mean the message. Like at Christmas time. The whole message in the culture is, ‘If you’re good, then Santa Claus will give you lots of presents.’ — I didn’t get lots of presents. And so, what did that mean, I wasn’t good? Obviously, because everybody knew that if you’re good you get presents.” [There must be a logical fallacy there.] “I know that now. But when I was five and six and seven years old I didn’t. Actually, it’s funny, I kinda did. But, it didn’t matter that I knew that I was good, if nobody else knew that I was good. You know? I got treated like shit.

Hopelessness/fear of survival:
I keep getting this picture of my dad slumping over in the chair. He always tried to keep up a good front. That he was going to make things work out. There was always some way to make things work. It worked sometimes. When he couldn’t keep that up anymore; he’d just slump. With his head in his hands. Ykk! … For me to see my dad, who I depended on, give up. Whew! Boy. It hurt! It  just hurt. I really wanted the best for him.

Lack of ownership:
We didn’t have money for clothes. With me being the youngest of six I never had a new dress until I was thirteen. I went out and earned the money myself for it. Everything was hand-me-downs, and even the hand-me-downs were bought at thrift stores. I mean, the things that were hand-me-down had been second-hand to start with.

Chronic embarrassment:
I had these awful clothes! I went to a middle-class, suburban school. I lived in the rural area, outside of the suburb. So it was mostly middle-class kids, who were real well dressed and well fed. They brought these really nice lunches to school in lunch boxes. And I had this peanut butter sandwich. So there is this chronic embarrassment about my worth.

They would talk about all these things that they had, or movies that they had seen, or places that they had gone. I had never gone to any of those places, or had any of those things, or seen the movie. So, I didn’t have anything to say. I was too ashamed to say that I didn’t have those things. I didn’t want to say anything. It’s very hard to get across the humiliation that a small child feels in those kind of situations. It’s not like adults, who have some perspective on those things. I didn’t have any perspective. This was my whole world, my whole life.

It was like I wasn’t there. A lot of times. It was just like they were going to have this birthday party. And they’d invite each other. I’d be standing right there, and they would not even include me in the conversation, much less the invitation.

Two footnotes: 

(1) Galbraith, James K. Created Unequal. Simon & Shuster, 1998, p. 17. As the bottom 80% of working people’s real wages have dropped over the last 25 years, increasing frustration has focused on transfer payments. Most transfer payments actually go to the rich in interest payments and the elderly in social security in realtively equal parts. In practice less than 1% of the federal budget is, or ever was, transferred to the poor. In the anger over transfer payments, even legal landed immigrants were excluded.

(2) Florida instituted Workman’s Compensation in 1935. It was administered through private insurance, and often avoided by companies with the help of “company doctors.” 


There is so much more to write about, and future articles will address some of the myths about welfare programs, the scapegoating of the poor, and the manipulation of the lives of poor people and the imprisoned to influence the behavior of the rest of society. 

Most of the readers of this will be currently middle class. If this tiny window encourages you to examine some of your assumptions about people whom the society has targeted for destruction, positive changes will happen. Perhaps you can befriend a person who was raised poor and ask her to share her life story. That person’s ability to tell you will give you information about your own progress in becoming open to others.

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