Both of my parents were raised in poverty. My mother’s type of poverty was systemic: she is a Puerto Rican who first learned Spanish and was raised in Brooklyn’s projects. By God’s grace, my mother was able to leave the projects and she raised my brother and I in Upstate New York, in a beautiful house with a lush green yard and a puppy. Because I grew up in the suburbs, I attended fantastic schools and received a first-rate education. There was never a question of my attending college, although no one else in my family had done so before me. I could attend college and live at home. I wasn’t forced to work at all because my parents were able to provide for my financial needs throughout my college career.
Post-undergrad, I’ve had some bouts of poverty in my life. Jobs seem to come and go, or are part-time and can’t provide for all the financial needs I have as a young woman living in New York City. I’ve had seasons of surviving on canned tuna fish and bread and moments of being able to purchase steak and wine regularly. This experience is not singular; most people around my age are in similar circumstances. I see myself as an odd type of poor: I have an apartment (granted I can’t afford the rent), I have an iPhone and a MacBook Air (both gifts from my parents), and I eat three square meals a day (and tons of snacks, let’s be honest). These things typically signify a person’s wealth, or at least economic stability. But, I am not economically stable at all. I cannot afford most things, and by most things I mean rent and my bills, and there’s nothing in my savings account. I’m that odd type of poor where I can sit in this Upper West Side Barnes and Noble, sipping on Starbucks green tea, typing on my laptop, and yet have absolutely no financial stability whatsoever. I recognize that my type of poverty is not systemic. This poverty I experience is due to a few factors, the greatest of them being that I live in the most expensive city in the world, and full-time jobs in my field (education) are extremely hard to come by. I fully understand that my poverty could be eradicated if/when I get that great full-time job and move into a cheaper apartment. My money problems could then be easily fixed by using the budgeting tools I was taught in school and if I have any issues, I have a father I can turn to for advice, guidance, and pocket money. I have immense privilege in this regard.
Unlike me, there are those of my same ethnic background who do not share my type of poverty. Their poverty is systemic and it’s extremely painful to observe. I have several family members who live like this and most of my neighbors do as well (I live in the Inwood/Washington Heights area). Regarding my family, I will refrain from revealing exactly who they are in the event that they read this post, so I’ll just refer to them as “my family member.” I have two family members who are a type of patriarch and matriarch of a large part of my Puerto Rican family. Both growing up in poverty themselves, in New York City, they deeply understand the mental pain that arises from feeling trapped in a life from which no one wants you to escape. Yet escape they did, in some regard, by moving their nuclear family further upstate. This is how I perceived their move, as an escape from New York City poverty. During a recent visit, the realization that my previous perception was completely false washed over me and I found it difficult to process. They may live in Upstate New York now, a typical beacon of middle-class life, but they have certainly not escaped from the poverty they were raised in. Looking into their fridge, I found little fresh food and hardly any vegetables at all. Their cupboards were all but bare. The largest and most expensive material good in their house was their television, which was watched most of the day. Both of these wonderful people are disabled and unable to work, so they receive government assistance. As they have no job to occupy their time throughout the day, the television is of utmost importance and it’s how they connect with visitors and each other. In fact, there are several televisions in the home and at least one is always on. Perhaps the sound drowns out the stifling and suffocating silence they endure every day. During a previous visit, this wonderful matriarch was playing games on her iPad when she suddenly stopped, looked into my eyes, and said, “These things are a distraction from real life.” My heart sank. She confirmed my long-held suspicion that she recognizes her lonely state as unhealthy and not the ideal and therefore escapes into games and television to protect her mind from falling into dark, hopeless thoughts about the future.
As Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.” She certainly spoke the truth with that statement and I have seen this poverty play out in many family members’ lives. There’s a young woman in my family who is a single mother of a child with special needs. That alone is a difficult burden to bear, but to add onto it poverty and mental illness is unimaginable. I don’t think I could bear such a life and my heart breaks for her. This young woman is my lovely matriarch’s daughter and, like her mother, was born and raised in New York City poverty. She had the chance to attend college, but found herself unable to keep up with her peers and dropped out. This is most likely due to the condition of New York City’s public schools and the fact that among the poor, encouragement toward an educational goal is hard to come by. Parents can’t help with the homework because of language barriers or ignorance of difficult material. Parents don’t see getting an education as a priority, because money needs to constantly flow into the home. Food must be purchased every week. Bills have to be paid on time. Why waste time with a book when you can be working and supporting your family? That is the type of work that is valued when human survival is at risk.
I am certainly not saying that this was my family member’s parents’ reaction to her decision to attend college. I don’t know anything about that. What I do know is that this type of thinking exists and it’s a thought pattern that is extraordinarily difficult to break. If an individual believes what I’ve written above, that person is not incorrect or mean-natured. They are actually correct. Eating today matters much more than studying. But studying and earning degrees will ensure that the need to eat need not be so desperate. Working in an office or owning a company pays much better than working as a cashier does.
This young family member confided in me during my last visit. At the kitchen table, over cups of coffee and hot chocolate, she revealed some of her financial struggles. “Gabby, I only had enough for a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk, and a dozen eggs. How am I supposed to feed my son on that?” She ended up having to feed her son an entire loaf of bread in a day to ensure that his belly was full. Thankfully her welfare check came in a few days after that experience. When she shared this information with me, her eyes were full of shame. Here was a twenty-nine-year-old single mother with a child with special needs and no one to help her other than the government that was never for her in the first place. This family member revealed that she has been unemployed for quite some time and as each potential workplace rejects her applications, she becomes more and more dejected. She said that she could not even get hired as a cashier, although she does indeed have a high school diploma, which is the requirement for that type of job.
Now, as I reflected on the type of poverty I observed during my visit, I began to feel more hopeful about my own financial situation. Yes, I may be struggling and, at times, desperate, but I have infinitely more resources than my family members do. I have people I can turn to in times of crises. I have my own personal knowledge about options I have for my life. I have a Cum Laude Bachelor’s Degree that no person may take from me. I always present myself in a way that fits in with the majority culture, as I was educated in institutions founded by the majority culture. I know how to speak like them, work like them, and even make small talk like them. These are tools all people of color have had to learn if they want to advance in this country, as it is quite clear that this country will never bend its traditional ways of doing business and behaving in the workplace. This is something I’m sure my family members will most likely not be able to do. Now, I’m not saying that people of color should intentionally alter their way of speaking or behavior to fit in with the majority culture in the workplace. I’m saying that we all do this and it works. Take from that what you will.
Although my poverty can easily end with a great job, the type of poverty that my family experiences will not be so easily eradicated. It is a mental and spiritual condition that will take the Holy Spirit’s power to break free from. I do not have all the answers; I have not studied this enough to be considered a credible person to glean wisdom from in this area. However, I do believe that with more social programs, free access to mental health care, knowledge of healthy food choices, and so many more things, those who are stuck in systemic poverty can break free. Granted all of the systems are set in place to prevent this from happening. But, dammit, we must have a fighting spirit if we want to be emancipated from the shackles that the oppressor has so systematically fashioned around our ankles.