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Reflections on privilege and poverty.

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Reflections on privilege and poverty.

poverty-featured-image

I have known for years that people in poverty are not to blame for their circumstance. No one deserves to be forced into homelessness, or to drown in medical debt, or make the terrible choice of “do I pay this bill, or feed my children?”

It doesn’t take personal experience to know that people deserve to be housed and fed.

But experience inevitably brings it so much closer to home.

The privilege and happenstance of my roots.

Composite of the cover art for the movie, October Sky. The text "October Sky" is written in small caps in a black starry sky above a headshot of Jake Gyllenhaal as Homer Hickam and Laura Dern as Miss Riley. Beneath those headshots is the silhouette of Homer standing outside looking up at the sky.My family history is an interesting sort of tale. My father is the third son of a railroad worker. My mother is the fourth child of a coal miner. Both grew up in little nothing towns in southern West Virginia. Have you seen October Sky? Mom gets homesick when she watches it. It happened not terribly far from where she lived. During her oldest sister’s time, their school played against the school Homer Hickam went to.

Even with the poverty in which they both were raised, the economy was such that they had access to college. They both have degrees. And that education allowed them to access the income and stability required to reach and remain middle-class. Of course, it wasn’t without a lot of hard work. They struggled to find work early in their marriage, and there were frightening times along the way. They lived in poverty until I reached school-age, when Mom went back to work after taking 5 years to take care of my brother and me.

With their combined income that they were able to procure through their education and determination, I grew up solidly middle-class. I never went without.

I always had a roof over my head, in a house in which only we lived.

I always had food, with access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

I went to the doctor and dentist regularly.

I attended a private school, which required quite a substantial tuition and therefore ensured that most of my peers were also middle- to upper-class.

My parents gifted a car to me, one that had already been paid in full so I didn’t inherit a car payment.

They paid for my associates degree in graphic design and my web development and multimedia authoring certification. They cosigned the loan that I took out to attend Bob Jones University.

Their status gave me access to my college education and the necessary tools for succeeding. This, in turn, gave me access to a network who have helped me find work throughout my entire adult life.

However.

The winds of change.

I entered the workforce full-time in 2009, right after the Recession. Wages and stability of work haven’t been the same since then.

My husband at the time and I were just barely able to afford to live in Northern Virginia. Our location afforded us access to people who also could afford to live there, who had many contacts that could provide us with references and work.

My parents have helped me financially throughout my adulthood, as my ex-husband was fired from four jobs, leaving me as our only income for four-and-a-half years of our six years together.

They helped us pay the security deposit needed to move into the duplex where I lived for six years.

Until last March.

A series of unfortunate events.

Typeset logo in small caps reading "A Series of Unfortunate Events."

Maybe I’m an unwitting cast member in Lemony Snicket’s woeful tale.

My whole adult life has been spent with the looming possibility of just one emergency taking everything away. Which is how the past three years’ happenings have culminated to where I am now.

  • January 2016. I broke up with my ex-husband, removed all financial support, and facilitated his move across the country. I admitted to myself that he really was abusive.
  • February 2016. I was still reeling with the grief and weight of seven years of emotional (and at times, physical) abuse. Understandably, this seriously affected my work.
  • March 2016. I “dated” a man for a week, who raped me multiple times throughout that week, generally with some level of physical violence (beyond the violence of the rapes themselves). Already crushed under the burden of impending divorce from an abuser, being raped sent me into a frenzied desperate existence for months on end. I lost a very dear friend during that time — my frantic need for support was too much to ask of her while she had her own mental health to attend to. I attempted suicide.
  • August 2016. I was laid off from my job. Work had been slow, and I was the most recently hired designer, even though I’d been there five years. Another factor that most certainly played a role in this was my declined performance as I dealt with PTSD.
  • November 2016. A man I’d been dating broke up with me, the day after I realized I was in love with him. He proceeded to play with my heart for the next six months.
  • January 2017. I tackled teaching for the very first time, thanks to a former teacher who is now my supervisor. My contract work almost doubled as I was kept on retainer for my client. But. A friend killed herself that month. I was already crushed under the weight of the one-year anniversary of kicking my husband out. All of these things piled together, making me increasingly depressed and agoraphobic.
  • July 2017. Summer break, I was worried about bills since I wasn’t teaching those months. My girlfriend broke up with me, understandably but very painfully. I stopped trying to give polyamory a chance for the time being. My Giant had practically been living with me for most of the summer, so we made it official. His income combined with mine gave us stability, until…
  • October 2017. My Giant, a caregiver by trade, lost his client and began a long, difficult search for a new client. In the meantime, he took on any odd-job he could through his experience with security work.
  • January 2018. My contract with my client came to end. They gave me a new contract…in which I was no longer on retainer. Therefore, I was paid by the hour as needed. This seems to have been their way of saying, “Thanks for creating all of our collateral materials and creating templates for everything. We don’t need you anymore.” That threw me hopelessly behind on bills. Teaching was little help since the pay schedule for adjunct faculty is bizarre.
  • February 2018. Our landlord requested we move out by the end of the month. My car was flagged for repossession, though I was able to make the final payment.
  • March 2018. My Giant and I moved in with a friend of his who graciously offered us a room and bathroom in her house. My anxiety and depression reached heights in which I became regularly suicidal once again. I’ve remained suicidal since.
  • June 2018. The wife of the man I’d fallen in love with the previous year died by suicide. She and I had remained friends, though drifted apart. Signs had pointed to us coming back together as friends again, I’d thought. But now…I’ll never see her again.
  • July 2018. My Giant and I got married and secured a private business loan to start Fat Girl Media.
  • September 2018. We threw ourselves head-first into vending at conventions. As a start-up, we struggled more than we hoped for. My parents told me that I am a “mortal wound” to their hearts and they no longer wanted to know what was going on in my life since my “lifestyle” and “choices” were stressing them out and killing my father faster. My Giant’s grandfather died. Unrelatedly, custody of his children was thrown up in the air where it has remained ever since.
  • November 2018. The woman we were living with became suddenly and frighteningly unstable, giving us 30 days to move out. She assaulted me as we were moving out. Another friend, whose lease would be up by the end of the year, told us we could stay with her until then.
  • December 2018. We were unable to find somewhere we could afford to live. Two days before Christmas, I asked my parents if we could stay with them until we could get on our feet. They reiterated that my “choices” are killing my dad, told me that my life is full of drama and they don’t want that under their roof, said that I refuse to work and expect to live off of the work of others, and suggested we look into homeless shelters.

A perfect storm.

Things have been — clearly — almost comically terrible. Our joint income is sporadic at best, both of us working whatever jobs we can find while we now have to spend much of our life on the road between where we work and where we have to sleep. Both of us suffer physical disabilities, as do most of our friends, which deeply inhibits our ability to pick up and move anywhere.

There have been some ups. Meeting and falling in love with My Giant has been one of the best decisions of my life. Through him, I’ve been able to build a new friend-group who love me as I am. The love and support from him and this network of friends has enabled me to make art a more prominent part of my personal and professional life.

And yet.

I can’t help but think about this atmosphere of uncertainty and fear. One thing going wrong can mean someone will lose everything.

All of these privileges I have, the access those privileges have afforded me, and I’m still in this position.

Unequal footing.

Still of Andre the Giant as Fezzik from The Princess Bride. He is wearing a loose sort of peasant's shirt and smiling, holding a large rock in his right hand, poised as if about to throw it.

What happens to people who didn’t have access to education? Whose family isn’t financially able to help, whose friends are in the same cycle of poverty in which they find themselves? What happens to those who are unable to work due to disability, and yet haven’t “qualified” for government assistance?

Let’s also not forget how we’re only a few generations past when people of color weren’t permitted to own land, which made them far less likely to be able to accumulate wealth or stability. That absolutely affects the places we all find ourselves today.

Our society is built in such a way that one emergency can seal the fate of people who are now impoverished. One emergency can make a family homeless. One emergency can take away someone’s only transportation to work. One illness or injury can drown someone in debt.

Then, once you find yourself stripped of the things our culture expects you to have in order to be a participating member, insult is added to injury — it’s nearly impossible to climb your way out again.

I don’t have a solution. I don’t have an answer. I have so much help at my fingertips, and I still risk losing so much. For all my privilege, I’m still in this mess. And so many people are in the same boat. They were born on the boat, and the boat is sinking, and our government and culture at large shrugs their shoulders and say we should just swim our way to shore, through eel-infested waters.

Maybe Fezzik will show up and take down the whole Brute Squad.

I have to joke. Or I’ll become paralyzed with fear.

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