Three, Maybe Four

I’ve been thinking a lot about class–specifically about how being working-class or poor is culturally framed as a state of suffering so that if you aren’t miserable, you’re not worthy of help and, in some cases, worthy of derision. (Think of Honey Boo Boo’s family. The “entertainment” of it is that they are so “trashy” and yet too “stupid” to see the direness of their situation, a situation we, the viewers will never be in, and if we were, will surely comport ourselves with more dignity.)

I didn’t realize we were poor growing up. This was a matter of us being in the weird position of a minister’s family in small Midwestern towns. We often lived in nice homes and my dad’s job put him at the same social level as the towns’ leaders. But I rarely had new clothes or in some cases adequate clothing. I had a couple of pairs of jeans, which I wore on alternate days to school and wore until they inevitably blew a hole in the thigh and, even then, if it wasn’t that bad, just kept wearing them. I had pneumonia a lot as a kid (my sixth time was in grad school) but I still ended up with no coat at college the year I caught pneumonia.

It’s hard for me to get at exactly how saying that–which was the truth–feels. Because the other truth is that I hated shopping and shit happened that made me not really care about being properly attractive, so it’s not like it burned me or shamed me to not have clothes. And I sure as hell didn’t want to shop at Wal-mart or K-Mart or some place like that where my parents would have been happy to buy me clothes (even though that’s where my non-hand-me-downs came from). But it was convenient that I didn’t want new clothes all the time, since they had no ability to make that happen, but honestly, I’m not sure how that convenient lack of want happened, you know?

I also didn’t feel poor because a lot of my friends were in the same boat. And there was always some family who had it worse or some ethnic group or race that could be disparaged for being “trashy” and thus “really” poor, not like us.

In a way, not having a coat at college was the first time I realized I wasn’t living like my peers lived and it took a professor telling me that I’d better have one when I got back or she was going to call my parents and give them a piece of her mind. “Back.” Well, that’s also a funny word. I had pneumonia. I was leaving school. Everyone at school thought I was going to the hospital. And I knew, but did not say, that I was going home to lay in bed, because there simply was no going to the hospital unless I was dying, and “ordinary” pneumonia didn’t cut it.

After that, I was only poor in retrospect. I felt that kind of poor-vertigo when I was in my 20s and got a job that paid as much as my dad was making when I filled out my FAFSA ten years earlier. That is a mind-fuck you can never really prepare for–when you see for yourself how far (or not far) that amount of money goes–and you realize that was supporting five people. No wonder we had those long sleeves of cheese in the fridge.

The third time was when a person I know professionally pulled me aside one day and said, “Your family has a lot of experience with drug addicts. Could anyone in your family recommend a good rehab facility?” and I blurted out “My family doesn’t go to rehab. They go to jail.” And then I was mortified and angry with myself for having said that. Having shown my cards like that.

And my body marks me as poor. And will. It’s my body, I think , which got me first thinking that being poor is supposed to be not only a state of not having a lot of money, but a state of being ashamed, of feeling like a failure, of wanting desperately to change–all the ways I’m supposed to feel about my big fat body. All the ways it would be crude and cruel to talk to me because of the economic circumstances in which I was raised, it’s fine to talk to me that way because of my body. How convenient.

I am, though, enormously lucky. I have had a lot of opportunities most people who come from my circumstances never do. My brain has opened up the world to me in ways that are hard to describe without sounding incredibly naive–I got to ride an airplane! I got to go to Canada!–but luck had a great deal to do with it as well.

Luck and enormous debt. I’ve moved myself from what we might call “upper lower class” to “lower middle class” and I figured once that it took me–counting student loans and credit card debt–$56,000 to do it. Money I will be paying off for the next ten years, too. So, maybe I haven’t moved classes yet. I have done everything it takes–gotten an education, gotten a good job, etc.–and I’ll still be 50 before I know if I could do it.

And the part that humbles me about how hard it really is to “lift yourself up by your bootstraps” in America is that I don’t have children. Not only does that make a class shift less expensive, it means I never have to worry that my rise was not high enough to keep them middle class too. After all, my Grandparents Phillips were securely middle class and only two of their five kids managed to stay in that class. The rest slipped back into the working class my grandfather had come out of.

6 thoughts on “Three, Maybe Four

  1. I am repeatedly struck by how much of a difference being without children makes in a person’s economic circumstances.

    I saw on FB the other day some quote from President Obama about how every woman should be able to make her own reproductive choices. And my first thought was “that’s nice in theory. But if your reproductive choice is to have 2-3 kids you really can’t. Not in this economy.”

  2. That’s what irritates me about how the anti-abortion language in this state is crafted. We have excellent research about why women in Tennessee have abortions–by and large, they cannot afford a child (or another child). If folks really wanted to do something real and permanent about lowering the abortion rate, we could work toward making it economically feasible for women to have children rather than demonizing them for choosing abortion.

    I think this is one of the important reasons kids today are trying to switch the language from “choice” to reproductive rights. The government should not restrict a woman’s ability to decide how many children she’d like to have.

  3. A couple of things that strike me: first, the anomalous social/economic position of the clergy goes way back in western Europe. To the earliest records of Protestant (and therefore married w/children) clergy. There are a few diaries of clerics from the 16th century, and this shows up a lot. By the time of Jane Austen, of course, it had become a recognized trope in fiction.

    Second is that “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” is sort of the American rebuttal of the American Dream (of each generation being a little better off than the one before). We are about a generation out of the period when we could believe in the Dream version of things and not the shirtsleeves one, but we keep being surprised by it.

  4. My family probably would have been considered lower-lower middle class. My mother had me when she was 19 and my brother when she was 20, and we lived with family or in a four-room rented house, until I was 12. But both of my parents worked–Daddy was a cop, Mother was a clerk–and were frugal, so we were able to move up into the middle class and buy a house and go to college. I look back on that childhood, and I was such a happy kid with a secure family and a good school and, for lack of a better word, prospects. I wish it could be like that for my niece and nephew, and I worry that it will not.

  5. I also didn’t feel poor because a lot of my friends were in the same boat. And there was always some family who had it worse or some ethnic group or race that could be disparaged for being “trashy” and thus “really” poor, not like us.

    This was sort of my situation, though I don’t know if I could even call myself poor. I didn’t want for anything, went to private schools, but economically we were still somewhere on the lower-middle, upper-lower spectrum. Being an only child played a big part in being able to afford private schools. Had I siblings, I don’t think my parents could have paid for our education. I still don’t know how to parse that — being simultaneously privileged and not privileged. I think we define ourselves on these very narrow axes, and when something doesn’t fit, rewrite our own narratives to make them fit.

  6. I know, it’s weird. I really didn’t feel poor. And though objectively I wanted for things, I didn’t internally experience it as want. And the thing is, I know there’s an enormous group of people who have it worse off than I ever did, but I know that because I know them. I’m friends with them. Hell, I’m related to them.

    So, I think the thing is that it can be true that you can indeed be objectively poor and still, within that paradigm, incredibly and deeply privileged.

    That’s me.

    I also think it’s discussions like this that kind of show where the idea of privilege starts to unravel at the edges. It’s a metaphor and like all metaphors, it can’t quite take you to the thing itself. I think it’s important to acknowledge that, even as we still find it a useful trope.

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