The Lies We Tell and the Secrets We Keep

bag of groceriesThe day I decided to write this blog post was very similar to proposing marriage:  I’d already made up my mind, but I wanted my parents’ blessing. I called them before I went over to their home, which immediately put my mother on alert since I have a key to their place and show up unannounced often. “What’s going on?” she asked, panicked. “Are you okay?” After I assured her that I hadn’t been kidnapped, laid off, or pregnant, she needled me for the reason for my call until I caved in.

With my heart beating fast and my sweaty fingers slowly losing grip on my cell phone, I told her that I wanted to write about our experience of growing up in public housing, and well, being poor. My mother was so quiet that I could hear my father snoring in the background. “It’s for work,” I said, hoping that would allay her fears. She cleared her throat and whispered, “Why?”

I could have explained the kind of work Children’s HealthWatch does, and how I saw much of my childhood in our research about the harmful impact of inadequate food, housing and heating on young children’s health. Premature birth? Check–I was born three months early and was underweight until about three or four. Illness? Check–we all struggled with various physical and developmental issues growing up, including my brother who passed away from the asthma he was diagnosed with as a small boy. Living in unhealthy or overcrowded conditions?  Check–we had mice and cockroaches that got into everything, and we sometimes took in family members or friends who were struggling financially. We warmed our home with an open stove and (prohibited) portable heaters. We all slept in the same room in the summer to escape the incessant heat with an old air conditioner. We boiled freezing cold water to bathe many a morning. There was mold in the kitchen and bathroom. Our neat appearance just belied our living circumstances. However, I knew none of this would matter to her.

Though my parents bought a home and moved when I was 18 years old, she– we–had a history that was as carefully and meticulously cultivated as the garden behind her suburban home in her very nice neighborhood—a world away from the dilapidated apartment I grew up in. We were faux undercover agents and I was the mole threatening to expose our backstory.

I learned at a young age that being poor was a bad circumstance, not because my parents necessarily told me so, but because, like many other young children, I picked up the social cues and clues. I grew up in what is known (lovingly? mockingly?) as the People’s Republic of Cambridge.  I lived by Alewife Station where suburbanites, now, as then, run the Fresh Pond trail wearing or riding trendy, expensive gear. Within walking distance of my old address are at least half a dozen well-maintained parks, several libraries, and funky boutiques and restaurants as diverse as the people who frequent them.  It is home to MIT, Harvard University, technology giants and professionals with old and new money.

I went to Catholic private school on academic scholarship. My parents took us on road trips to Montreal, New York and other parts of New England during the summer. To the outside world, we looked as if we had what most would think of as a middle class existence–except for a long time we lived in low-income housing and sometimes used food stamps.

Living in a suburban area with nice homes and great schools is the American dream for most families—unless you’re seen as an interloper. I learned quickly that my address and my status as a low-income child immediately branded my family and me as moochers who were lazy and unproductive members of society. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Both my parents worked long, hard hours to provide for my siblings and me. My dad worked in a paper mill, often working overtime. My mother worked first as a Certified Nursing Assistant, and then took classes to be an Licensed Practical Nurse. She, too, often worked overtime. There was always a parent or relative home though–we weren’t latchkey kids.

Because of the stigma that comes with being low-income or poor, my parents preferred to work multiple jobs at times to keep us afloat. However, despite all their efforts, there still wasn’t enough money because of their minimum wage/low-paying jobs. With five kids to feed and one in particular who was chronically ill with asthma, bills were plentiful when money was not.  When times were especially hard, they applied and qualified for food stamps.

My mother, a statuesque beauty, always wore her Sunday best when she went shopping. She would often let people cut in front of us in line so that she could be last and pay for groceries with some semblance of privacy.  Back in the 80s and 90s, instead of an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card, food stamp recipients received booklets of food stamps in different denominations. So you can imagine the time it would take, however brief, to get the booklets out and tear out the “dollars”.

On one occasion, my mother misplaced her booklets in her bag. The woman behind us was impatient enough at that, but when she saw my mother pull out the brightly-hued booklets from her purse, she sighed dramatically and muttered, “Figures.” My mother’s shoulders sagged a bit as she quietly paid. The woman kept up a litany of “some people living off of hard-working people.”  That day, instead of putting the groceries away, my mother left them on the table. She went to her bedroom and closed the door.

I, myself, would experience other indignities and micro-aggressions as a low-income kid, especially when I hit high school. Where I lived was known as a “baby factory” as there seemed to be a steady stream of young girls getting pregnant. Imagine being 13 or 14, looking even younger, and holding your baby sister’s hand in your school uniform but still being asked if that’s your daughter by complete strangers.

Imagine getting free or reduced meals at school and having to hand the cafeteria lady your obnoxiously bright ticket designated for such meals, and the look of contempt you get along with your tray (a different color from everyone else’s) which usually held, for some odd reason, food portions that were burnt or small. Try imagining your best friend not being allowed to go to your house because of where you live. After hearing classmates make jokes about the “kind of people” who lived in my area, I learned not to accept rides home from friends’ parents and instead be dropped off at corners.

I learned to lie about the clothes I got from the Salvation Army, about Christmas presents I didn’t actually get, about the extravagant trips I never took, the cool places I’d never been, even about my parents’ professions. I learned to smile at jokes about government cheese, knowing full well what that actually tasted like. I learned not to cry when my mother, in attempt to curb the population of cockroaches in our apartment, burned one side of her body using a bottle of toxic roach spray. She was hospitalized for a few months, getting skin grafts and battling infections. I learned to sleep with my eyes open in class once I started working at 13, after school, and on weekends, while carrying honor classes. The money went to help my family and to pay for the books and the partial tuition my scholarship didn’t cover. I learned to count pennies, to shop bargains, to make do.

I learned I was a magical unicorn–people who looked like me and lived where I did weren’t supposed to amount to anything. I learned that simply being myself surprised people–I blew minds by opening my mouth and stringing words together intelligently, by being smart, by being polite and quiet. I wasn’t like their perceptions of “those people” who lived in “those places.”

But I also learned that food stamps and other benefit programs, while stigmatizing, were literally life-altering, even life-saving in many ways, at least for my family. Food in our stomachs made it easier to concentrate in school and corrected some of our nutritional deficiencies. Low-income housing in a safe, pest-free, mold-free apartment allowed us to store our food without fear of contamination or the onset of new illnesses. That, coupled with energy programs that allowed us to have affordable gas and oil, ensured that we didn’t need to use an open oven or dangerous, faulty equipment to stay warm or cool.  Access to neighborhood clinics staffed with knowledgeable doctors mitigated our ailments.  Government programs helped my parents become homeowners more easily. Collectively, all of these things helped my siblings and me to perform well academically, to eventually go to college and graduate, to become homeowners ourselves, and to be productive, successful members of society. The cycle of poverty we experienced as children stopped with us.

But it took a long time to see that, to even acknowledge that. Even though we earned what we have through the sweat of our brow, there’s still this fear that people will think we cheated somehow–by getting help when we needed it most.

I never really gave my mother a suitable reason why I wanted to write about this. I couldn’t really find the words that would make her feel that it was okay to talk about the family secret. In truth, I’m not so sure it is okay myself, as I’m using a pseudonym. I don’t know when I, or my family, will finally be at ease enough to admit we were once on welfare.

Poverty is a stink that people want to rid themselves of, whether they experience it directly or indirectly.  This is no wonder, as people tend to look down on the poor, or worse, pity them in a way that robs them of their dignity and pride. They are punished with punitive laws and out-of-touch policies that keep them further entrenched in the poverty cycle. What people don’t know, or care to know, is that every day, many working poor aren’t resting on their laurels, but rather, pulling themselves up on bootstraps that are fraying. Safety net programs just help them from completely snapping and falling apart.


**The author’s name has been changed to protect privacy.