I’ve never forgotten one night, when I was 15 years old, and I crawled into bed. I put my feet under the covers, and then I felt a mouse run up the side of my body. It emerged from under the blankets and with lightning quickness it scampered onto the floor, and out of my room through a round hole in the floor. It left me with a massive dose of adrenaline preparing me to fight or flee, despite the fact that catching or fighting the mouse was hopeless and there was nowhere I could flee for safety.
At that moment, my sense of self changed. A new identity burned into me, one that’s never left and probably never will. I was poor. I came from a poor family, and any illusion to the contrary was forever shattered. I lived in a house in a bad neighborhood that lacked heating or air conditioning. A house where rodents roamed freely. What people today call “food insecurity” was a part of our daily lives, although I’d never heard the term and wouldn’t for nearly 20 years. For me, it meant eating a lot of spaghetti and when that was gone making due with popcorn for dinner, wondering if tomorrow there would even be popcorn.
My life hadn’t always been like that. Just a few years earlier I lived in a comfortable house in upstate New York that my great-grandfather had bought nearly 80 years earlier and balanced meals arrived on the table every night. Then, my grandfather died, and my grandmother began a five-year decline that led to her death, leaving behind massive hospital and medical bills. The house was sold and we left the small town where my family had lived for more than 150 years. We went south to Florida looking for a better future. The 1970’s hit upstate New York hard, factories closed, and my mother, burdened by taking care of her mother, missed a lot of days of work and became unemployed in a time and place where employment opportunities were close to nonexistent. Tired of cold weather, unable to find work, and desiring to flee the disappointments of her life, she packed my brother and me into her Ford Mustang, and like so many others, we left the rust belt for the sun belt.
Florida was not the promised land we hoped to find. The wages were low, we were completely on our own, and my mother became less functional as the burdens of raising two teenaged boys overwhelmed her coping skills. She used the remaining money we had from the sale of the New York house to buy a mobile home that was repossessed within a year. A friend she met in a bar offered to rent her the dilapidated home we lived in until I left school.
Growing up, I was taught that if you were honest and hardworking you would be rewarded with a comfortable life. This was the unquestioned promise of America that I had been hearing my entire life. To be poor was to be immoral and lazy, and with that realization came a profound sense of shame that left me wondering what had I done in my 15 years that had stripped me of my morality and industriousness?
It’s been 35 years since I’ve had a mouse in my bed. Once again, I live in a nice house, my diet is only limited by healthy eating, and I have all the trappings of at least a middle class, if not an upper middle class life. I’m one of the few who made it, and I do mean few. I was born intelligent and my early childhood gave me a stability and insight that, along with a lot of luck and assistance from others, would help me recover from my family’s misfortune.
My family, and many of our friends and neighbors, haven’t done as well. My mother is now retired, has no pension other than Social Security, and spends her days alone in her small apartment watching television and dreaming of her high school days. When I can coax her out for lunch or dinner, she often spends much of our time reminiscing about her childhood and talking to me about people whom she hasn’t seen in years and whom I’ve never met. My younger brother left my life several years ago, in a furious torrent of anger he’s carried for far too long, but that I don’t know how to help him with and that I fear will never leave him. As far as I know, my mother is the only relative with whom he has any contact.
To be poor in America is the live on the outside, to be judged as the cause of your own misery. The judgments are predictable and all are shaming: If only you didn’t: take so many sick days, waste your money, drink/smoke so much, have cable TV, drop out of school, have so many kids, eat so much sugar, etc. The problem is, all these behaviors that the poor get judged for are so often the product of being poor in America.
The consequences of being poor in America are life limiting if not outright deadly. Of my family of origin, I’m the only one who still has my own teeth. Dental care wasn’t something my relatives could afford. Have you ever wondered why inexpensive denture companies tend to be found in poorer neighborhoods? It’s often much cheaper to have your teeth pulled than to pay the cost of fixing long-neglected dental problems. One friend from High School, got lucky with his dental care. A woman hit him while he rode an old motorcycle to and from work and he used the insurance money to save his teeth, but most aren’t that fortunate. It’s not just dental care; my relatives struggle to obtain basic healthcare. Even when they have insurance, the costs of co-pays add up quickly when you must visit your primary just to get a referral to a specialist who then wants to run tests, all requiring co-pays. Continuity of care is often nonexistent as insurance panels change or my relatives change jobs or experience unemployment. This lack of continuity destroys the trust necessary for a good physician-patient relationship resulting in people simply ignoring medical advice. So many of the poor people I knew growing up have become morbidly obese, not because they’re lazy gluttons, but because the inexpensive food available in our grocery stores and fast food restaurants is profoundly unhealthy.
Even education, something that should be a pathway to freedom, is full of pitfalls for poor families. Public schools in poor neighborhoods fuel the school-to-for profit prison pipeline. Student loan debt incurred to pay for over-priced trade-schools or fly-by-night private college educations that don’t lead to higher paying jobs leaves many with a lifetime of government sponsored debt for having tried to improve themselves.
The worst thing though, is the shame carried by America’s poor. Father Greg Boyle in his book Tatoos on the Heart describes it well:
“The principle suffering of the poor is shame and disgrace. It is a toxic shame — a global sense of failure of the whole self. This shame can seep so deep down.”
I get this on so many levels because to some degree even all these years later I still live with elements of this shame and likely always will. When I see a poor person, I see my own image. I see the shame that wounds the spirit of my friends and family. What I can’t see is how to cure it. One reason why I practice consumer rights law is because it gives me opportunities to restore dignity to those who carry the shame of their poverty. The law doesn’t favor poor people and in so many ways I feel it’s rigged against them. However, sometimes I’m able to take up a cause that for a moment restores dignity to my clients and I hope gives them the strength to carry their burdens a little more lightly as they go forth in their lives. When that happens, both client and lawyer are restored.