I hate going places designated for poor people. When I do, I feel like my poverty is an open, public wound that everyone can see. I feel deeply inadequate, and very stupid that I hold a PhD and still can’t shop at Whole Foods. When I go to the doctor, I want to explain away why I am receiving care at the county hospital.
When the people around me who barely finished high school are dumping money into their retirement accounts as I put $6 in quarters into my gas tank and hope it’s enough to get to my research group meeting, I feel resentful and hateful and stupid. The time to write about this is now, because soon my situation will change, and because I know it will change, I feel safer articulating this reality.
I live below the poverty line. I qualify for Medi-Cal and for WIC. At the end of every month, my bank account is almost always in the red. I’m accustomed to account balances like $18 or $3 or $-167.
It’s Christmastime. That means presents. We tried to pare down the gifts this year, focusing on the kids almost exclusively and giving a few well thought out gifts to each other. I got Sam something big and I’ve been saving for it for months. I could barely make the purchase, but I wrapped it proudly. He loves it.
The other day I stood in a toy store, picking gifts for my nieces. I wondered how, even if I bought small gifts each under $15, I would pay for the diapers due to charge automatically and ship to me two days after Christmas? I figured that since my account wouldn’t be overdrawn, the bank would validate the diaper charge even though it’d put me into the red. I rationalized that there was only a week between Christmas and the first of the year, when my paycheck was due.
When those nieces Facetimed on Christmas, I saw how high gifts were piled under their tree. I listened to their excitement over enormous plastic dollhouses and wondered how many hours they’d spent unwrapping gifts. I witnessed the sheer amount of stuff they received, and I wondered if they’d even glanced at the activist girl books and little science projects I’d carefully wrapped. They did not mention my gifts. I wished I’d saved the money and spent it on my own sweet daughters instead.
There’s a disconnect here, between my impoverished state and the ideological values that drive me. I am pretty solidly middle class. I am typing on a MacBook Pro. I like to snack on organic hummus and despite my persistence in poverty, I believe it is only a temporary state. I have a very significant safety net and I know that my mom will deposit money into my in-the-red-account before I become homeless. I am aware of my extraordinary privilege in knowing- and being able to believe- these things.
It is still really f*cking hard to be constantly wondering how I’ll pay for new socks for my babies, whose feet seem to grow by the day. It is still really shameful to turn down conference requests and adventurous outings because I’m afraid I’ll need to use my ATM card and it will say insufficient funds on the screen. You know that wedding gift I told you I’d shipped that never arrived? I didn’t actually buy it but I was too embarrassed to explain I can’t afford the cheapest thing on your registry. I know you wanted me to give to your fundraiser, and I cared about you and your cause, but if I gave to your GoFundMe I was going to have to forgo a trip to the grocery store. When my college friends complain I never visit, I swallow hard but I do not explain that the cost of the plane ticket is more extra than I’ve had in years. Instead I pour cheap wine and change the subject.
Being poor is extremely stressful. Sometimes I’ve sobbed into my husbands shoulder, because I imagined a life where I could take him out for a surpise dinner, and that feels utterly impossible. Sometimes I stare at the crack between the floor and the wall in our bathroom, and hate myself because I know there’s spiders and mold taking up residence in that tiny space, and I feel powerless to fix it. I’ve cursed Facebook, filled up with people I used to know vacationing on beaches, and I’ve wondered if the only way to make do is to marry a synthetic-looking man. I’ve felt failed, inadaquete, stupid, and useless.
I know that in less than two weeks I’ll start a job at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities, and there will be a regular paycheck that is four times as much as I’m currently making. I can feel my partners’ shoulders relax when we talk about visiting his family, and our eyebrows don’t immediately furrow, trying to figure out how to gather the funds for plane tickets. We interviewed nannies the other day, and I felt in my bones when one of the nannies said, I just need to make enough to cover my rent. I didn’t explain how I knew, though. I just smiled kindly and said, Of course.
It feels imperative I write of these challenges and necessary to voice them aloud and make them known, rather than sweeping them away and forgetting how deeply challenging, horribly embarrassing, and utterly exhausting it is to live a life in poverty. For I am not the only one. Our soon-to-be-nanny, a fellow Ph.D. from one of the top institutions in the nation looked me in the eye the other day and said, “What Ph.D. doesn’t live in poverty?” My closest Ph.D. buddy, a brilliant researcher focused on global politics, queer theory, and media whispers across the phone lines when we chat, “I just want a grown-up salary.” And we’re not the only ones, though we may be the most educated ones. It’s really hard to talk about money, especially when there’s not enough of it to go around. It’s not just the Ph.D.s suffering in poverty- we are legions and legions of people, and our stories must be told.