I Never Thought I’d Be Poor, Then I Was (And You Could Be Too)

Chelsea poverty

I foolishly and selfishly thought that my comfortable middle-class upbringing would shield me from knowing financial instability. I was wrong.

Lazy. Entitled. Get a better job. If you’ve been paying attention to the recent discussion on raising worker wages—often led by fast food worker protests—you’ve heard and read sentiments like these.

No doubt, the issue prompted Kate Norquay’s blog for The Huffington Post earlier this month on “What I Learned From 4 Years Working at McDonald’s.” Her story is familiar to any of us who have ever worked a thankless job at minimum wage, fearing the worst, but promising ourselves we deserved better.

My first job was not unlike Kate’s. At 16, I was hired as a cashier at the local supermarket and befriended boys and girls my age from a neighboring high school. We made the most out of our mundane hours and irregular schedules by holding late-night motorized cart races and sneaking each other food samples from the deli. We tolerated our jobs because they were temporary, and one can bear anything as long as it’s temporary. We were not like our older counterparts who stared out over the registers with blank eyes, mouths set in a thin line of complacency. We were Going Places.

I continued working at the grocery store off and on during breaks from college and even graduate school for some extra money. The days of grinding conveyer belts were punctuated by mortarboards and diplomas: associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s. Like all graduates, I imagined myself up a few rungs on the proverbial ladder of success with every milestone, widening the gap between permanent employment as a cashier and a future in which I’d never know professional dissatisfaction or poverty.

I was mistaken.

Over the past few years, publications like The Atlantic and The Huffington Post have been raising visibility for a modern class of academics colloquially known as the “educated poor”—contracted professors with the same credentials as their full-time, tenured counterparts earning a nationwide average of $2,700 a course. The adjunct crisis in higher education is something that I write and speak of often, though I’ve never publicly addressed my personal financial strain at length.

While teaching for multiple institutions and tutoring when course assignments were scarce, my income was barely enough to cover my living expenses and always subject to change. I lived in an old house that had been reconfigured into apartment units, climbed up and down a set of dilapidated metal stairs that were not up to code, and rose and fell asleep to the sounds of teenagers fighting each other in the ally. I eventually sent my dog back to live with my mother after too many flea outbreaks from the neglected, mistreated neighborhood animals that wiggled their way through the holes in our dry-rotted fence. When a group of former students suggested a holiday party, I prayed they wouldn’t ask me to host because I was embarrassed for them to see where I lived. For Christmas, I asked my dad for money so that I could finally afford an out-of-pocket teeth cleaning.

I graduated with my B.A. in 2009, the year after the banks collapsed and our country saw its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Even so, I had sat poised with the rest of my hopeful graduating class, chins tilted up toward the keynote speaker who promised us that we would persevere. I couldn’t imagine any of us, least of all myself, ever living in a neighborhood where the police were regularly summoned to break up domestic disputes or the doors were littered with eviction notices. I certainly couldn’t imagine a classroom of students able to dress better or afford nicer electronics than their professor. If anyone had told me in 2009 that many Ph.Ds would be on food stamps and welfare, I’d have called bullshit.

This is the inherent smugness that comes with the “othering” of poverty, of exploitative labor. “My humiliation…wasn’t because I made burgers,” writes Kate Norquay. “It was because I was supposed to be better than that. I deserved a ‘good’ job. I had an inflated sense of self that comes with being a person of privilege.” Like Kate, and probably like many of my college classmates, I foolishly and selfishly thought that my comfortable middle-class upbringing would shield me from knowing financial instability.

Even though the most humiliating of moments at the grocery store—a customer asking if I was “braindead” on the day we had to put our family dog to sleep and I couldn’t focus on anything else—instilled a greater kindness and patience in me toward people in customer service, I was still returning to my parents’ home after the day was done. I did not have any real burdens beyond a cell phone bill or responsibilities beyond helping with household chores. I knew where my next meal was coming from, and that there would always be enough.

I now work in D.C., where the wealth disparity flashes like an angry neon sign. Women with Prada handbags and men who will later drop $500 on a bottle of wine stomp past the homeless sleeping on the warm grates by the subway and huddled under blankets by the fire station. A disabled veteran, who has set out a can for change by his tattered boot, holds a cardboard sign that says “Smile.”

“If you think you are better than those people,” Kate Norquay says, “you are wrong.”

During those years wondering what my salary would be for the next semester, I realized that none of us are too good to clip coupons or shop at a discount store. None of us are above the panic attacks, the constantly running mental calculator, and other psychological effects of poverty that rob us of joy and concentration. None of us are “better” than doing what we have to do to put food on the table or to make a life.

But beyond humility, I learned appreciation. After my car was totaled last spring, I could actually afford to buy a new one. I’ve been able to, slowly but surely, replace outdated devices like my behemoth of an analog television for more high-performing models. For every day of sick leave, every low-cost appointment and prescription, every work-provided meal and box of leftovers, I feel stupidly, immensely grateful. It is a level of gratitude I’m not sure I’d have reached without the years of financial strain, the years of going without.

A popular saying makes its rounds every now and then: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. It is all too easy to dismiss the McDonald’s worker or the subway musician as lazy and unworthy of a livable wage. It is much harder to muster the humility to look inside ourselves and see undervalued professions, layoffs, unforeseen health costs, in someone who at any moment could lose it all.

Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.

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