How Being Poor in America Shaped Every Part of My Life and Forced Me to Live on the Streets (Hard Times, USA)
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The following is part of AlterNet's series on poverty, Hard Times, USA.
As a young lady, my mother dreamed of becoming a pianist. She showed enough promise at this that when her father lost a leg to diabetes and could no longer work, her piano teacher offered to continue giving her lessons for free.
Her mother would hear nothing of it.
"We don't need any charity," She bristled.
Of course she was lying. A sudden loss beyond her control. A need for a little help over the hump. Theirs was as honest a case for charity as any. But her sense of pride would not let her admit it. So, my mother's musical development came to an abrupt halt and instead of her dream career, bathed in the footlights of a concert stage, one thing after another, she ended up struggling to raise my brother and me on her own.
The arc of these events conveyed to me for the first time that a separate set of rules exists for the poor. Pride, for example--which they took pains in Sunday school to drum into my head as being among the deadly sins--was, for the poor, a virtue. And Charity, championed--during those same Sunday sessions--as one of the highest virtues of the heart was, in practice, a thing tinged with shame.
Fall on hard times, and the whole moral code gets turned on its head.
We lived out of two rooms, my mother, brother, and I; in what was essentially an unofficial rooming house, perched on a block of one family homes in a small, blue collar, middle class Westchester town. There were thirteen people in all under that one roof. All of us living hand to mouth.
For a while, we were on public assistance, my mother also doing "day work" at other people's houses to make ends meet. She had to do this on the sly. Had the Welfare Department found out, they would have reduced the monthly check they sent by an amount equal to what this extracurricular work brought in and we'd have been no better off for the effort.
I understood that this rule was an effort to protect the taxpayer, the idea being to guard against anyone using public assistance as supplementary income. But since most employment available to people like my mother was low paying, often leaving less spending money--after taxes, transportation and other costs associated with the workplace--than what public assistance provided, it also worked against her honest efforts at providing for herself. Therein, another hidden effect: Rules that work for the haves, can often work against the have-nots.
I imagine there were other areas we could have lived where rent was cheap enough that we could have perhaps had more space and privacy. The city projects, for example. But it was my mother's ambition that we grow up free of the ruder influences of the urban sprawl.
Many years later, I would see her wisdom. Despite whatever the good intentions upon which they were born, the projects primarily succeeded in institutionalizing poverty, greatly concentrating its mass within a given spot, multiplying, thereby, the degree of obstacles arrayed against anyone ever finding a way out of there. To the generations that have had to navigate a gauntlet of crime, drugs, street gangs, and other spoils of the projects every day, being tough, getting over, and other requisites of surviving in the moment, by necessity trump the more abstract imperatives of looking toward the future, such as being smart, staying in school and studying hard.