If I think back on it, I guess I was pretty lucky as a child.
I was an only child who could charm even the most miserable in our community. My parents owned their own lucrative business. We had everything a family could want: A nice house in the suburbs, new cars, fancy new clothes.
The world smiled on my privileged little head, and I smiled back.
Until my parents divorced.
I don’t know what happened, really. The details are mostly insignificant other than the divorce was ugly. My father bullied my mother, and out of the wealth my parents had amassed, my mom walked away with some family heirlooms, her clothing, and a few thousand dollars. No child support. No alimony. Never mind the fact my mom married my dad when she was 17 and had worked alongside him to help him build THEIR business—she basically walked away with noting.
I was 14 when I learned what it meant to be poor.
My mom worked any job she could find. Fast food. Nursing homes. Newspaper. She kind of worked a little bit of everywhere making minimum wage. I’ll never forget the shame on her face the day we walked into the building to apply for food stamps. I was 15 then, and had become pregnant. We were already going hungry, and there’d soon be another mouth to feed. Mom swallowed every ounce of dignity she had and filled out the plethora of paperwork. I think we were approved for a little over a hundred dollars a month in food stamps, Medicaid for me, and zero cash assistance, but it was as if an angel of mercy landed on our shoulders. At least we’d be able to afford more than hot dogs and bread.
Before I became pregnant, we just made due, but with the baby on the way, the entire dynamic changed for us. Sure, I made a huge mistake by having sex that young, but my son is definitely NOT a mistake, so I regret nothing.
We moved into government subsidized housing, not our favorite place to be. However, out of this space filled with the sorrow of women and children broken by domestic violence and poverty, came something beautiful.
There’s a large portion of our population that likes to speak of anyone receiving government assistance as lazy, ignorant moochers out to take from everyone else. That Ronald Reagan invention of “welfare queens” is as far from the truth as any stereotype can be. The people living in these apartments had an incredible work ethic. Fueled by fear of lifelong poverty, we worked hard to earn as much as we could so we wouldn’t have to ask for any more than necessary. Most everyone looked forward to the day they could call up the Department of Family and Child Services and cancel their case. That was only part of the beauty, though. The other part came from the community we built.
See, when you’re poor and everyone else around you is poor, you learn that working together is the only escape. It’s like the old adage about one finger pointing has no impact, but if you ball up your fingers, you make a mighty fist. And a mighty fist the folks I grew to love and respect were. We learned to barter for what we needed. We traded days and different shifts babysitting. We traded clothing. We shared food. We gave up being a bunch of individuals and became the proverbial village. Even though we each had separate dwellings, we lived communally so that we could all rise up.
Between friends and family, I received everything I would need for my baby, and when I’d finished with those items, I passed them on. It’s how poor people do things. If I have, you have, and vice versa. Most importantly, though, we all made sure everyone had a way to work and had adequate childcare. Work was the most important part of our existence then.
Not everyone escaped. Some were lost to hopelessness and the world of drug addiction or abusive marriages, but many of us did. We pulled ourselves out of the hottest part of the fire into a place in life where the flames don’t come after you every day. We had help from social programs, but we worked, and we worked together.
That is the point a lot of people don’t understand today. Poor people have a drive to succeed, too. We aren’t all lazy and stupid. Rather, we were determined and resourceful. No one was looking for “entitlements”. What we sought was a means to survive. Everyone pulled their weight and more. In fact, I knew people who worked 2 and 3 jobs and still couldn’t make ends meet. Being poor is like a chronic disease: once it strikes, it’s difficult to shake. We try to hide our disease by dressing nice when we go out, but people think we don’t deserve nice things. So, I guess we’re just supposed to wear our poverty around our neck like a noose for the world to see.
Now that I’m an adult and my privileged childhood is long gone, I think back to the days when I could smile at strangers, and they would realize who my parents were. They’d dote on how cute I was or how well-spoken I was. Today, when I see a stranger, I remember those days in the checkout lane, my mom holding our food stamps with strangers all around us looking at us like we were human garbage — they were never afraid to voice their opinions of us, too. No apologies, but no matter. The privileged girl became poverty girl and became the strong, independent woman who knows that a food stamp card is not a sign of laziness, and some of us poor people are richer in spirit than many of the wealthy folks will ever be.
Tammie Niewedde shares her life with 24, 21, and 16 year old sons. She also has a 2 year old grandson whose energy level reminds her exactly how old she is (40, and she owns that proudly!). In her home, you will find a 120 pound fur factory named Dexter and a few cats whom have decided that she is merely their staff. The root of her love for books, writing, and animals comes from being a child whose only siblings were books and her animals. She is a full-time student, mother, coordinator of all that is chaos, and a hopeless list maker. Most of her writing is creative non-fiction that describes her real life adventures. Her acerbic, biting sense of humor may capture your heart, or it may induce rage. Nonetheless what she writes is true to life. You can often find her hanging out with the kiddos, studying, reading, writing, and making lists…of everything! You can find her on Facebook!