What It’s Like to Be Poor

When I was young, my situation didn’t feel that different from other people’s. We lived in a house in the ’burbs, with a backyard and a fence — just like everyone else. It was only in the act of growing up that I realized we were poor.

Oh, you lived with your grandparents? So did I. Along with my mom, my brother, my sister, my aunt, my uncle, and two of my cousins — not to mention the random “boarders.” At one point, my siblings and I shared a room with my mom, the four of us together on a daybed, sleeping shoulder to shoulder.

growing up poor
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The first time I was ever really alone was in my dorm room in Brooklyn, 3,000 miles away from where I grew up. The quiet never felt so quiet.  

I couldn’t believe when I learned that some people threw away food — just wasted it! — because they didn’t like it or didn’t want it. Some people chose not to eat simply because they could. Because they thought that food would always be there, because for some people it is.

Did you know there’s more than one type of cereal? Or ice cream? Or that there’s such a thing as “real” Lunchables? (Instead of your mom cutting up squares of ham, cheese, and Ritz crackers and putting them in a sectioned-off Tupperware.)

Your mom bought you clothes from a department store? We got clothes from there sometimes. In the back of the store. Keep walking. To the rack with the mismatched items. Pick the ones with the red stickers because those are clearance and sometimes you get an additional 20 percent off and it feels like your birthday.

Otherwise we got our clothes from — who else? — someone older than us. “Those shoes aren’t too big! You just need to stuff more tissue into the toes!” Sometimes my grandma would make my dresses. She was an amazing seamstress — the fit, the cut, the craftsmanship were all superb. Everything except … the fabric. The discount fabric that was too pastel or too floral or not enough like what they sold at Delia’s. It’s silly what can feel important when all you want to do is fit in and not have an accent or weird clothes.

Every month, we would box up our own clothes — already handed down once or twice over — to send back to the Philippines to help others. My grandma would send money sometimes, too. When I asked why we couldn’t just keep the money, she’d say, “Because we can help so many more people than just those who live in this house.”

She kept a tally on the back of the envelope, noting which family needed more help which month, and I can still see the list of names in her neat penmanship. I felt the same sting of jealousy when my mom would put a dollar in the collection plate passed at church. (But it was a bad week when she would put in nothing.)

My mom worked two jobs, sometimes three, while she went to night school to become a nurse. (Did you know McDonald’s isn’t a career choice, but just something you sometimes have to do?)

I remember the first time I saw one of her paychecks. Even when I was 14, I knew $3.75 an hour was too little. Too little in relation to how many mouths there were to feed, and too little in relation to the effort it took to earn. She was also a babysitter, a photographer’s assistant, a grocery store checker, and a caterer.

Everyone talked about money. How much this thing costs compared to how much we don’t have. Or how much we have left — each red cent — to stretch until payday. That’s exactly what it was like. For a long time.

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