My Childhood Experience of Poverty



An old photo of me at a disappointing Christmas (courtesy of Linda Dunn)

When you are a child, there is a lot you do not understand about money. You notice that your mom scolds a bit louder and cries more often. Sometimes you pour water on your cereal instead of milk, you eat lots of things from cans, and you get a smaller, dingier room in a new neighborhood. You understand that your mom needs money. So you color her something resembling a green rectangle, and you watch a sad smile spread across her face as she thanks you, then tries to explain why you don’t need to color green rectangles anymore.

In a recent piece I wrote for the Huffington Post, I responded to Mitt Romney’s statement that 47% of Americans do not pay income taxes because they see themselves as victims, and they expect government handouts. What I did not say was how much that idea offends me. My point then and now was not about party politics but the wrong-headed assumptions many people make about the poor of this country. In that post, I cited the research of social scientists to debunk some major myths about poverty and welfare. I want to follow up that post by citing some personal experience. My mother summed up the way I feel on Facebook the other day.

Okay. I cannot take it any longer. The next friend whose posting is filled with comments from holier-than-thou folks who are certain that the poor are poor because they are lazy and enjoy living off the public dole is going to be blasted by me even harder than my last blast. In the early 80s, I was a divorced mom of 2 whose ex didn’t pay child support and I was taking home about $90 per wk after paying for child care while I worked. If I’d been stuck in my old job, I would have $20 left after paying for child care. What do you people advise moms to do with kids while working? Lock them in a closet? And let’s not forget the car from hell that I needed for transportation in an area that had no public transportation. STOP DEMONIZING THE POOR until and unless you’re willing for the government to give them the tools they need to get themselves out of poverty.

Blaming the poor for their poverty oversimplifies the problem. For most people, poverty is temporary. For those who have a difficult time staying off welfare, the problem is not that they do not want to work. Many of them do! The problem is that their work is not steady enough, does not pay enough, or does not provide them with the benefits they need. For instance, I once met a woman I knew from church, working at McDonald’s. During the conversation, she said she had been working there for several months, but she would have to quit soon because the weather was changing. Her kids got sick during the winter. McDonald’s did not provide realistic benefits, but it also meant she made too much money to receive Medicare. She would have preferred to keep working, but she had to quit in order to be able to provide for her children. This is not a work-ethic problem. It is a systemic problem – lack of a living wage and lack of affordable healthcare – and it is perverse!

Quality childcare, healthcare for all, and even more public transportation are simple tools we can give the poor to help them improve their lives (which is what, I think, most people want to do).

In a sense, some of the poor are victims. The deck is stacked against them through no fault of their own. My mother’s earning power was stymied by a severe hearing loss she suffered as a child. In her small town, that meant she received a sub-standard education (some teachers still balk at the idea of giving “special treatment” to disabled children). My mom was eventually able to overcome her poor education because she is very smart. For instance, she told me that she did not learn how to reduce fractions until she was an adult (because math teachers tend to talk while facing the blackboard). So she would make an educated guess at the answer by converting the fraction into a decimal and then estimating it back into a fraction again. Her answers were often wrong, but the process shows she grasped the concept. She did not lack brains or diligence, only an education system that met her needs. (How many inner-city and rural kids today are victims of similarly sub-standard schooling?)

My own experience with poverty was relatively mild. We qualified for free and reduced lunches but made about $100 too much per month to receive food stamps. So we took donations from food pantries instead. The official poverty line of the United States is extremely low by comparison to other industrialized countries, and yet those who share Romney’s belief in the 47% still think the poor should stop just taking from the nation. They need to give a little, too. My mom had something else to say about that.

Rant warning: I am glad that my children are too young to remember the poverty years of a few sprinkles of FlavorAid in the water being called KoolAid, the Christmas of used toys and underwear, and esp. the day that a friend picked up the dog and took it to a kill shelter for me because I just couldn’t do it but couldn’t afford to keep it. I am sorry for the meals of $0.19 damaged cans of spaghetti watered down to serve the 3 of us. I am not sorry, however, that I paid no federal income tax for 2 years (but I did pay state income tax, etc.) A third of my income went to child care. My ex did not pay support. I had health insurance payments, housing, etc. and transportation expenses. Why are so many of m y friends ignoring stories like this and insisting that “everyone needs to pay something”. Just how many meals do you want them to skip to pay that “something” What will they give up to make that “token payment” that you insist is so all-fired important to you? Can someone please explain this to me?


The Christmas of Used Toys and Underwear (courtesy of Linda Dunn)

I don’t think my mom has anything to be sorry for. Like most people, she did the best she could with what she had at the time. I think this is true of most people. We are all just doing our best for who we are and what we have right now.

My mother did pull herself out of poverty. Today she works on computer systems for the military, she is a published author of many short stories, and an accomplished fencer (about to travel to Austria for a major competition). But there are far too many people who are not able to accomplish what my mother has. They want to, but they lack the resources. The government gave us some assistance, but not much of it. Even though we ate watered-down cans of pasta, we still “made too much” to qualify for aid. Fortunately, my mother had tools outside the system, especially a grandmother who could watch us on our sick days so that my mom could keep working. She had family who could afford to give her interest-free loans when she decided to start going back to school. Not everybody has that kind of help.

I wonder how many of those who believe the poor are living it up at the expense of hardworking taxpayers have ever truly been poor themselves. They might be less inclined to wag their fingers if they had spent a little time coloring green rectangles for their sad mommas.

Jesus once said, “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12, NKJV). This requires empathy, which is hard. A basic fact of our fallen condition means that we all tend to think the world should revolve around us. We have difficulty imagining our lives as anything other than what they are. We seem to be especially bad at empathy when it comes to poverty, but it might help if we remember that the poor are human beings. They too are made in the image of God. Like middle class people, poor parents want to give their children better opportunities than they had, and if we believe in the “Golden Rule,” then we need to help them.


24 thoughts on “My Childhood Experience of Poverty”

  1. For me, the effect that living on beans, rice, hot dogs, etc has on one’s soul is criminal. I’m glad that someone takes pride in getting by this way, but for me, “fullness” requires a fullness of spirit that does not concentrate every ounce of energy on squeezing into a cardboard box the size of .49 macaroni and cheese. Furthermore, I defy anyone to prove that God calls us to such minimalism. Good stewardship, yes. Flavor, color, texture, fragrance, sensuality require some creativity and creativity requires extra time and energy. Some people enjoy the challenge of fitting into the smallest spaces available to them. Others need the waste of anointed oil.

    1. No one is stopping you from being like the woman who anointed Christ’s feet, and bestowing your full generosity on the poor. I am simply suggesting that the US government on not be obliged to provide able bodied citizens with a larger food budget than the rest of the working poor have.

    2. And I defy you to show me anywhere in Scripture where the obligation to feed the poor is placed on the government. No where do we find Christ picketing Pontius Pilate, and demanding that Caesar feed the poor.

    3. What I find fascinating about this logic is how thoroughly liberal it is, in the classical sense of the term. It bifurcates faith between public and private dimensions by establishing the government as something other than us, than that in which we are always already implicated. The result is some incredibly inconsistent political philosophies that say, on the one hand, “As a believer in a democratic society, I have a ‘right’ to organize to pass laws that conform to my moral vision, while on the other hand precluding that vision from involving anything having to do with forced philanthropy. In Byzantium, where there was less of a distinction between church and state (a distinction that is more virtual than actual) there was state-funded philanthropy because such was expected of Christian civic officials. One can argue about the efficacy of government care for the poor, but that is a different argument than this one.

  2. I was sorting photos the other day – and writing the accompanying stories – among which was this: one of the many reflections of the helplessness of me as “service provider.” It is an unforgiving emotional maintenance of hoping against hope, and days where you can’t seem to be to be able to buy a sense of compassion. And without nobility, I am able to regale you with stories of life among society’s most despicable, and for good reason. And the lesson? We are colossal failures at, as you say, seeing them as human beings; seeing Christ in them; and seeing ourselves in them.

    Fr. John’s mention of 2 Thessalonians 3:10 is well taken. I was shocked to have a young man now on his third attempt at parole tell me, “This time I really have to get up off my mother’s couch and get a job. I watch TV, then I start drinking, then I stop my medication, then I stop going to the Dr., and I lose all motivation. My mother thinks I’m disgusting, I think I’m disgusting. I need to be a man.” Apparently he was listening. It was a very good day.

  3. I’ve been poor, and for long enough to remember it very well. Like most people who favor welfare reform, I am not opposed to all forms of government assistance, I just think reforms need to encourage those who can work, to work, not just for the sake of the budget, but for their own sake. And this is a completely biblical position to take: “For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).

    I don’t think very many people think your mother did not deserve some help during the time you mention, on the other hand, I am not so sure that giving a family of 4 a maximum of $668 dollars a month in food stamps (which mind you, cannot be spent on soap, or clothes, or toilet paper, but only on food) is not more generous than is good for either the budget or the people who get it. I have a family of 4, and we would be eating steaks on a regular basis if we had a food budget nearly that big. My wife estimates that we spend about 200 dollars a month on food, and none of us are going hungry.

    And if anyone doubts the food stamp benefit amount I cite, I can point you to where you can see it for yourselves, and explain how food stamp budgets are done to determine those benefits.

    1. I have long thought that people who take the food stamps service should be helped in grocery shopping — your wife is doing a fabulous job and I’ve got to say I wouldn’t mind her helpful hints for our home which is paying way too much out a month in groceries. That said, I have got to mention that it has been pointed out to me that the family of 4 is 1 adult and 3 children.

    2. Not necessarily 1 adult and 3 children, but that is probably more typical. And those children would typically be eating for free at the public school for breakfast and Lunch, which leaves only dinner.

      I don’t know of any person who is not swimming with money who spends anything close to $668 dollars a month for food at the grocery store to feed 4 people. You could spend that much if you ate out regularly, but you can’t use food stamps at a restaurant… only for food, at grocery stores or similar vendors.

      We obviously don’t want people to be malnourished, but unless we are talking about the elderly or the disabled, I don’t think we should make being on government assistance more attractive than taking care of yourself… and you have to be making an awful lot of money before you can beat $668 dollars a month for food at the grocery store for 4 people.

    3. Our family of five spends a minimum of that amount on food. I know one very savvy shopper who lives nearby. She said she spends about $500 per month. I do not know what the differences are in standards of living between our two locations. I think we could spend less on food if either of us had an extra fifteen to twenty hours in the week to cook. The working poor do not have that kind of time. Also, food is more expensive in food deserts. All that is to say, I think your experience is atypical.

    4. Well, I’m really curious now about the cost of food. We rarely eat out, but we haven’t been couponing or trying to buy strictly “family value” brand at Kroger. I think it’s time our family did this for awhile. I’ll let you know what happens.

    5. When you say you spend $500 dollars a month on food are you sure you are not including things that food stamps does not buy? Most people think of their grocery bill as being around some certain amount, but that includes a lot of non-food items that you buy when you go grocery shopping.

      But my wife does cook. The working poor also have income from their jobs too. The $668 would generally be what someone would get who was completely on various forms of government assistance, and so would not be working, or at least not working full time. There may be cost of living differences, but I cannot believe that any family needs the US government to give them $668 a month to keep body and soul together. The first two years I was in college (which was before I was married), I typically got by on about $10 dollars a week, and I was not starving… I just had to buy basic food that was inexpensive (rice, beans, bread, peanut butter, jelly, hot dogs… etc.).

    6. We spend more. I have never met anyone who says they spend as little as you. I wonder what my mom spent back in the eighties when she was splitting Spaghettios three ways.

      Regardless, I am not spending four hundred dollars a month on toilet paper.

    7. Web page references seem to get hung in a spam filter of some sort, but I just attempted to post the link to that article. I can also give you the link to the Food Stamp Chart, if you want that too.

    8. Links just cause the comment to be held for moderation. Should not be filtered out entirely.

    9. Looks like that article was using the Bureau of Labor Statistics average household expenses for 2010. They provide a link to the BLS site, and that page now has 2011… and so the average is now 319.00 a month.

    10. Here is the link:

      Here is the text:


      *Eating Out Eats a Lot of the Food Budget*
      Eating away from home makes up about 40% of the average family’s food budget and totals $2,505 annually. Meanwhile, the average grocery bill is only $302 per month. Clearly, the average family can save a lot in food spending, by cutting back on eating out.


      I am not reading that paragraph the same way you are. The average grocery bill is $302 per month, but the author’s point is also that families are spending too much eating out. Dining and groceries fall under the food category. So, groceries would be more if dining were less. Thus families who do not eat out very much will spend more on groceries. So to say that the average family spends $302 per month on groceries is correct, but one must take pains to avoid the implication that that amount covers the entirety of food consumed.

    11. But David, children who are on Food Stamps eat out twice a day a school for free. Also, we are talking about averages… the average household makes 63K a year… that’s a lot more than my household makes. If the average household spends 319 a month on Groceries, many spend a lot less. If you eat simply, you can stretch your money a long way. A 25 pound bag of rice will last a lot more than a month — my wife estimates we go through one about every 4 to six months, and that cost about $20. Beans are also very cheap. As is flour, bread, noodles, etc. If you buy in bulk, and buy things when they are on sale, you get live very cheaply, and not suffer. Obviously, if you have more money to spend, the tendency will be to spend more.

      My question is why should an able bodied person who is not working, and on food stamps eat better than most working poor people who are not on Food Stamps? Should we help such people out (assuming that there is a requirement that they look for a job, and take one if offered)? Yes. But should we make it more comfortable than working? No.

      One factor here that I have never heard a liberal mention, but which should be of interest to them. In the 90’s, after welfare reform kicked, Food Stamp rolls plummeted. Grocery chains, Food companies, and the company that runs the EBT card began to notice, and complain. Soon thereafter, in a pretty good economy, the Feds began to advertize welfare, and slowly roll back many of the provisions of welfare reform that had succeeded… not because the poor were suffering, but because these companies were not making enough money. I think it is a good thing to have as few people as possible on Food Stamps, and if companies lose money, they need to readjust.

    12. I was not looking to have a debate, Father. I only wanted to point out that you were inadvertently misusing the figure. You can still make your point, and I can still disagree with you. Of course, in all this discussion about numbers, I forgot what the point was…

      Oh yes! I think I was just saying that I thought you were underestimating the grocery budget of a family of four, say with one working mom and three kids.

    13. And the average grocery budget would indicate that 668 for a family of 4 would be well on the hand end of the average, according to the actual data. I never said what I spend on food was the average, only that it is about 1/3 of 668… and we don’t eat out a lot either, and my kids are home schooled, and so get no free breakfast or lunch.

  4. Lord have mercy! It’s been years since I thought about my mother’s remarriage — I believe much to avoid what your mother is describing — but she needn’t have worried, she was smart and resourceful, too. Anyway, we were in Plainview, Texas, in a trailer park in a trailer with cigarette burns on the countertops in the summer. School started back in August instead of September like in Tennessee back then and at school they handed out the lunch program forms for families who needed assistance. I remember crying as I handed it to my mother and asked her if we needed to do this lunch assistance thing. (I was also crying because at the age of 10 I didn’t understand why we had left he green hills of Tennesse and my grandmother’s homemade lunches!) My mother said no, my stepfather’s parents were helping out for awhile while he finished up school. Sure enough we were out of that trailer and into a nicer one in Flagstaff Arizona in a couple of months (it snows at Halloween there!) So goes life. The things you are pointing out are good, David, you are a good son and you have a great mother!


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