I’m receiving food stamps, but I’m not really poor. Even when I had only $7 in my bank account, no gas in my car, and no expected income for weeks, I wasn’t poor. The times I considered going to food banks, but felt too ashamed to do it, I wasn’t poor. And when I applied for government assistance and qualified for help, I still wasn’t poor. My poverty is situational, not generational. I’m newly poor, not really poor.
My former husband provides far more financial support than the law requires; he’s a good father and a good man. My small business, when I am able to work, brings in decent money. However, it’s not my helpful ex-husband, college education, varied skills or earning potential that will free me from poverty, though those things will certainly help.
One of the most significant advantages I have as I work toward financial stability is my sense of entitlement. I expect people to treat me with respect. I expect kindness. And I expect to uncover wonderful opportunities in my professional life. These expectations, this sense of entitlement, combined with my underlying belief that things will get better, allow me a hope most truly poor people don’t have.
What I didn’t know before I hit this financial trough was how many people expect life to just suck. As far as they are concerned, that’s just how it will always be. People I know now who are really poor, whose parents and grandparents and extended family all have lived with levels of income lower than I can even imagine, seem resigned to being treated badly. People have even explained to me why the bad treatment I’ve received since being poor is just how things are.
“People are tired,” said Shay Stewart-Bouley, executive director of Joyful Harvest Neighborhood Center in Biddeford. Over the course of Stewart-Bouley’s 15 years working with low-income adults and families in both Chicago and Maine, she has seen that “living in the culture of poverty, the day-to-day challenges wipe people out. They are just too tired to fight. When they do find the strength to fight, to try and make their voices heard, they can be punished for it by landlords, employers, even social service providers.”
Recently I sat at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services after the person at the first window said I should probably come back another day, that there was a three-to-four-hour wait, that I was unlikely to be seen. As I waited, I watched other people come in after me also get the bad news.
When they called me up to a previously unstaffed second window after just a few minutes, while everyone else still sat in their chairs, the man helping me was confused about why I was there.
“Your case seems in order,” he said, standing at the half-opened window, obviously not expecting a long conversation.
I agreed but explained I wanted to talk to someone about planning for my future. I was here to learn exactly what would happen and when, I said. I had a lot of questions.
Again he suggested I come back another time. I explained that other times I would have my children with me, so that wouldn’t work. I said I would keep coming back on Fridays at the same time until I was seen. The conversation wasn’t unpleasant, but it took some pressure from me for him to realize I expected I would have a chance to get my questions answered.
The worker was apparently unaware how difficult it would be to just come back on another day. Person after person came to that first busy window only to hear “we can’t see anyone else today.” The office would be closing in three hours. Adding anyone else to the waiting list was pointless, as there was no way they would be seen.
Sitting in a waiting area for more than six hours is not just inconvenient for poor people, it’s expensive. Arranging child care, transportation, time off work, among other things, all take time and energy. Missed work costs. The ability to be flexible with appointments is something that doesn’t exist when living without money.
The people who came after me, hearing they wouldn’t be seen, seemed to be under a blanket of acceptance woven with hostility or apathy or maybe just exhaustion. Most turned away from the window before the clerk even finished her sentence. That’s just how life is, they seemed to say. They were tired.
I’ve read about it before, and now I know some people who live it, but what makes someone actually poor isn’t all about the money. Since I got boosted back up to near-security with food stamps and MaineCare, I live with a nearly constant feeling of hope. I continue with the sense of entitlement my parents instilled in me. I’m not really poor, only newly poor.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her columns appear monthly.