Last week Fabulously Broke had a blog post entitled, “Can you survive on an extreme budget and make tough choices?” She linked to a game called Spent, which was created by the Urban Ministries of Durham to show how many people end up turning to charities for help. In answer to her question I said yes, I could because I grew up poor. I’d like to tell you a little about it.
I’ve mentioned a few times that I was not born in this country. I came to this country at age 6 with my 5 year old brother and one suitcase each. I’m sure most of the things in those suitcases were not even ours. My mother had immigrated to this country almost two years earlier without us, leaving us with strangers in our home country. At the time she did not know that she could have brought her young children with her when she immigrated, but she didn’t know what situation she would find herself in, so perhaps it was for the best.
I grew up for the most part the only girl in a house filled with my mother, uncles, my grandmother, my younger brother and 6 male cousins. You can imagine how much fun that was being the only girl, but I didn’t mind. For about the first year here my brother and I shared a bed with either my mother or grandmother. When we moved to a larger house, I continued to share a bed with my grandmother, and my brother slept perpendicular to us on his own bed. I slept beside my grandmother all the way until I was 15. A bed or room of my own was not something I dared to dream of.
At least one and sometimes two of our meals were eaten at school and we always qualified for free lunch. I didn’t have enough pride to be ashamed of qualifying for a free lunch. Just having this scheduled meal was welcomed, because I knew that it would come like clockwork every day that there was school. I’ve joined the line at church or at school when the government distributed staple items to families. There was always a big block of American cheese, pasta, cereal and powdered milk. If we were lucky there was sometimes chicken. My brother and I pretty much ate chicken or eggs as our regular protein and beef on special occasions until our late teens. I ate my first pork chop when I was 19.
I never went on school trips, I didn’t have sleep overs, I didn’t own or play with dolls or video games. Money was to be used for more important things, but that was okay, I learned to be a library rat and virtually lived in the public library.
As the only girl clothing was a sometimes a challenge. My mother dreaded having to buy me clothes because I would grow out of it all too soon, but it had to be done. If not, I would inherit clothing from my male cousins that had invariably made it through at least 2 of the boys before it reached me. The idea of having an item with a brand name wasn’t allowed because my mother would have thought that I had lost my mind.
My mother saved as much as possible, and when I was 15 we moved into a house that she had purchased. Little did she know that just about a year later she would hurt herself at work and never work again. When we moved into the home my mother sat us down and said that we would all have to try hard to make sure that we kept the house. There was no money to buy a bed for me, so I slept with my mother until she purchased a new bed. I received her older, then 10 year old bed.
At 14 I started selling candy at school to make money. I knew that my brother and I, then high schoolers, would need things that my mother could not provide. At the time we both traveled at least 1.5 hours each way to get to the specialized academic schools that we had both been accepted into. Our book bags were falling apart and tied together long after the straps had broken apart. We had inadequate clothing and coats. In fact, I remember not having a winter coat my entire first year of high school. Did I mention that I live in New York City and that my school was on the water? I would wrap a large scarf around my neck and don a jean jacket from another cousin and pretend to not be cold. My shoes all had holes in the bottoms so I would plug them with cardboard. My sneakers literally had the imprint of my toes in them because I had outgrown them months before.
My brother had it worse. He’d hit his growth spurt and received no new clothes. His clothes were falling off of him. He developed bunions from wearing the wrong size shoes for too long which he still has to this day. I was fine fending for myself, but I knew that my brother suffered even worse than I did. I landed my first job at 15 and I have been a tax paying, social security contributing, never collected unemployment person ever since. The money that I earned at the various jobs that I held until I was 18 provided food, clothing, transportation, books, application fees, hair cuts, graduation dues, etc. for my brother and I until we started selling on eBay and I left for college.
Growing up poor in the U.S. is entirely different than growing up poor in some other countries. Even some of the worse conditions here can be better than some of the best conditions elsewhere. Homeless families here can be accepted into programs where a roof will be put over their heads. In some other countries when you are homeless, you are truly homeless. There are no resources for you. When you have no money for clothes, you go naked. I’ve seen it and I have always vowed to never live that way.
When I think about how we grew up, I am proud of the people that we have become and the path that we are both on.