I grew up poor. Not “Christmas will be lean this year” poor, but “Christmas only happens if someone picks you from the Angel Tree” poor. We moved all the time, staying somewhere only as long as it took to be evicted, or sleeping on friends’ couches . . . or in the car. I thought a restaurant you could sit down inside of was the epitome of special occasion and was so proud to have found a bottle of name brand shampoo in our donation box that I only washed my hair once a week, trying to stretch out the amount of time I had a bottle of Pert Plus to my name.
We rarely had enough for the day, let alone to make it to the end of the week, and growing up worrying has affected me to this day as an adult, no matter how comfortably we live now. The amount of groceries I buy has always been a source of contention between my husband and me, but now that we’re smack in the middle of a global pandemic that is threatening to thrust our economies into freefall, I feel the poor little girl inside me reacting even more strongly.
We’re told to stay home and stock up, to try to have as much on hand as possible to get our families through the next unknown number of weeks. Growing up poor, I never knew where my next treat, soda, or snack would come from. Food stamps only allowed for four string cheeses a month, so now I buy them in bulk. I never run completely out of anything—before I use the last can of cream of chicken, I’ll buy 12 more. I always want to make certain that we not only have enough, but have excess.
Except now we can’t buy excess.
We’re encouraged to prepare to stay in place, only to be met with shelves that are bare of anything we could stock up on.
I’ve always been afraid of running out of toilet paper because there were many times as a child when we faced such a crisis. We stole rolls from gas station bathrooms or ran into a Taco Bell for a stack of napkins, but now that’s not an option, either. Now we’re all out of toilet paper, and I feel the fear and lack of control closing in on me.
I know what it feels like to run out of something and have worked my entire adult life towards never feeling that again. Now that we’re feeling it all as a nation, I’m reeling.
All my work, all my planning, all my hard work and earning and extra jobs taken on to provide, they weren’t enough.
Growing up poor, I didn’t have birthday parties. No one would have come to the construction office building I was living in, anyway, but we also couldn’t afford to feed extra friends. I didn’t attend birthday parties, either. Maybe because I was going through a phase where I only washed my hair once a week, but probably because I couldn’t have afforded to bring a gift or didn’t have a parent at home to take me.
Now we’re not having parties again.
My daughter turned eight recently and my birthday is this month. Neither will have passed with much fanfare. Gifts can be ordered (though their delivery is likely to be delayed). Treats can be made (if you can find the ingredients). But the celebration and excitement isn’t there when you spend a special day in the same living room where you’d spent the last three weeks.
When I was growing up poor, my single mom couldn’t hold down a job. I remember knowing what it meant if she was able to pick me up from school or was at home when I got off the bus. I listened to her beg friends for rides to interviews, beg interviewers for a chance. I knew never to answer the phone (when we had one) because it was likely a bill collector asking for payment we didn’t have. I knew we depended upon donations to eat, bathe, and clothe ourselves.
Now I’m witnessing more than 20% of my country experience the same thing.
Jobs are lost by the millions, with even more bills going unpaid. People who feel the fear of not knowing where you’ll live at the beginning of the next month and the desperation of depending on others to help you.
When I was growing up, the internet was becoming incredibly popular. Friends were chatting on AOL Instant Messenger, updating their Xanga accounts, emailing each other fun forwards. I didn’t even have a computer.
Now we’re told children can only complete their school work via online lessons and documents, and I worry about those kids who grew up like me. Kids whose only access to technology is via their classroom Chromebooks. Kids who need more help than a self-paced packet can offer them. Kids whose school is the only consistent address in their life, who have stayed in classrooms longer than anywhere they’ve slept. Kids who can’t access the internet, can’t ask for help, can’t get help. Kids who will fall through the cracks, go hungry, be overwhelmed.
A pandemic as an adult feels eerily like poverty as a child.
We’re comfortable now, but the fear and panic that comes from not knowing what next week will bring is familiar in a gnawing, unsettling way. We have enough, but for how long? We can get to the stores, but what can we bring home? We’re isolated, under-stimulated, scraping the pantries, and living under a cloud of unemployment and bills coming due.
I’m provided for. I’m cared for. I continue to work hard, and I found a 48-pack of toilet paper on Amazon.
But the scars of poverty are beginning to feel a little more fresh, a little more raw as I feel the world around me scramble.
A pandemic feels a lot different to someone who’s already lived this way, and despite the bravery and peace that comes from knowing I’ve made it through once before, I can’t help but wonder if I should start rationing my shampoo again.