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.