In 1998, during a staff meeting at my first off-white collar job, tele-fundraising for arts programming in neglected city schools, someone brought up President Bill Clinton. I rolled my 20-year-old eyes and said, “Like he ever did anything for poor kids.” The woman sitting to my right, who got under folks’ skin in such a way that the phrase I’m not going to jail for her was often uttered, stepped to his defense.
“Well, I think it’s good,” she said. “It’s about time those people started doing something for themselves.”
Those. People? You’re talking... about my mother.
I saw by the expressions on my coworkers’ faces that I looked crazy right then. Even though I’d said it with much less passion than one human can be asked to withhold, talking about someone’s mother was not a trespass in my new world. It carried no weight whatsoever. That in spite of their liberal voting records and hypothetical poor-kid saving, and Free Tibet concert tickets, these people I worked with were not my people.
I asked to take a walk.
I thought it was better form than saying all the new words that were showing up in my head, ricocheting off the inner walls of my skull like Jiffy Pop.
My boss, sitting to my left, said no.
Over a decade later, in July of 2013, I am reading the Wall Street Journal, scanning Eric Morath’s analysis of the June jobs report, when my attention frays around the edges, honing in on one phrase so perfect, so unintentionally axiomatic, so ripe with truth and substance: discouraged workers.
The weight of the words bears down much more severely than their WSJ denotation. They describe Us. Us, being almost every person I spent my formative years living next to. Working or not, we were a discouraged people, and discouraged mostly by the role in which we were cast in the national imagination—which translated quite seamlessly into the every day.
I grew up poor. And in the spirit of the lower castes of American culture defining popular culture (and the rest of you all appropriating it) I am going to go ahead and revive a less oft-used term: Poorness.
There are several narratives of poorness: what the news media doesn’t call poor, and attributes to race, gender, citizenship, and sometimes religion; what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services calls the poverty line; and then what poorness is, was, and what it became for us. Be warned: you too, may have, or currently be embroiled in poorness and not know it. As Peter Edelman states in his book So Rich, So Poor: Why it's So Hard to End Poverty in America, "throughout history there has been an instinctive belief among some that the poor have no one to blame but themselves. A special version of this illusion exists in the United States, the Horatio Alger mythology that one makes it (or doesn't) on his or her own."
This thinking and therefore denial is not exclusive to those who have already claimed their place in the banquet line for American pie, which might explain why you call yourself middle class when you're a dollar short of a dime but have a brand new Silverado with custom rims about to be repo'd. It's cool. I won't judge.
We all want to believe we're making it. We're Americans.
Poorness happens in different ways. There is collapse-of-industry poverty, where the wealth-generating company ships out, or the business itself becomes obsolete. There are generations of discrimination and violence against people where poverty has, for reasons psychological and access-related, disproportionately affected communities. Then there is the circumstantial dynamic, where a person's life takes an unexpected turn and the economic implications are so impacting that said person is destabilized.
My family started out struggling. My parents met young, as teenagers, and spent fourteen on- and-off years together. Some years in they decided to have me. Both young and heavily under the influence of the moribund sixties rebellion, they had no plan to get married, but did – after my indomitable Southern Baptist granny called the house every day for months, asking when the wedding was. It was, as it were, March 4, 1977. They were wed by a criminal judge at the Hall of Justice, known simply as 850 Bryant, in San Francisco.
He read from Kahil Gibran’s The Prophet:
Stand together, yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.
I was born six weeks later. During labor, my dad saw my heart rate slowing on the fetal monitor. After prodding an uncharacteristically blasé nurse in the delivery room, she sent a message up the chain. Moments later the doctor rushed in and began preparing for an emergency C-section. I arrived in less than ten minutes without a scalpel brandished, and came home three days later, on my dad’s 27th birthday. I was, as my mother would often say, his baby.
Less than 25 years later, my father would be dead, a combination of alcohol and drug-induced cirrhosis and Hepatitis C dissolving his liver and leaving not a single organ eligible for donation. His younger brother, now 20 years clean, claimed responsibility for my dad’s drinking. They played pool tournaments all over the city before my mom was pregnant with me. My dad was good, third-best in the city. My uncle was on speed. Playing in bars and being able to drink took the edge off.
My mom will tell you no one got him drinking. It was just his poison, and it took him longer to find it. Once he did, it took hold of him like nothing she’d ever seen.
Three months into her pregnancy my dad started closing bars. The next five years brought separations, a move to the Midwest, reconciliation, AA and Al-Anon meetings, more moves, a set of identical twin daughters, and everyone’s urging my mom to move on. None of it made sense. She held on. She had hope. After forty years of furious addiction, her own father—a cop whose alcohol-induced, gun-wielding frenzies had him ransacking dresser drawers, searching in earnest for her hiding mother—had gotten sober. Anything seemed possible. She and my father loved each other. They loved their kids, and being a family. They decided to buy a house.
His sobriety, and the marriage, lasted a few more months. As soon as my sisters were old enough for preschool my mom enrolled in college. When she told him she had filed for divorce he didn’t leave. Sometime later she came home to the furniture turned upside down, holes kicked in the walls, her clothes cut up. She took me, now seven, and the twins, four, and holed up in a motel off Highway 101 for several days. We watched Fiddler on the Roof and kept our milk on ice in the bathroom sink while we waited. He had never been violent but nothing made sense these days, so she took out a restraining order.
The various incarnations of poorness often overlap, but the connecting thread is that they’ve all led to a lower station on the food chain, and with it, the nose-wrinkling, finger-wagging disdain of other Americans. Especially as a soon-to-be single mother with three babies in tow. The judge filing the restraining order laughed at my mom. He wanted to know why she wanted to kick her kids’ dad out of their lives. He agreed to it with the caveat that it was temporary and that they go to mediation. This was the first of this kind of no-sense. But not the last. The not-making-sense and breach of privacy and respect would be the undercurrent of our childhood.
There is so much shame in being poor, so much denial. Investment in the Horatio Algers myth and all of its American cultural permutations leads to burnout. We toed the line so hard as a family. Tried so hard to defy the stereotypes. Bare cupboards aside, my mother became the first person in her family to graduate college, full of confidence that this milestone would eventually show out scarcity and lack for our family. We lost our house and moved neighborhoods a year after the split. Sometime afterwards my mother spotted a former neighbor working the teller line in her bank. The teller surveyed the batch of grant and work-study checks my mother presented at the window and peered up, chin to chest—“Are any of these from a job?”
There is an insanity that comes with trying to perform a version of yourself and your life that does not allow for acknowledging the pain, humiliation, reality, and longevity of your struggle. To do so is to believe advancement will come with the hard work, the mythological vehicle for class mobility, when that is only one small portion of the picture, and reliant on many other ingredients, luck being key. When your luck fails—call that life or refer back to "how poorness happens"—the resulting internal fallout and self-loathing can be almost as destructive as the forces of fate that have sent your house of cards a tumble.
What emerges from this are the staples of poor-hating reality television drama: screaming and yelling, blame casting (anyone but the system!), substance abuse, illness, the intervention of the juvenile courts, violence, family disintegration. It’s right here we begin to lose our humanity, viewing ourselves with the simmering shame and hatred we've learned from our captors, in true Stockholm style. We have not evaded the stereotypes. They've reached up and slapped us across the face. They're here, we are they, and the handprint will still sting years after the flush has faded.
More than twenty years later, during a solo visit with her closest friend from that time, I was offered up stacks of letters that my mom had written her during my childhood. One in particular eclipses all others. My mom was 33 at the time of the letter, almost the same age I was when reading it. It was filled with unbridled optimism about her own future and the future of our family, once we could get ahead. She wrote that I was getting older and she wanted to give me my own room, a bit of respite from the space I shared with my sisters. What she didn’t know was that a recession was coming, and that tapping out resume after resume wouldn’t yield the results she sacrificed for. She didn’t get that graduating cum laude while raising three kids under seven years old was not enough, that ten more years of parental struggle were ahead, not unlike the ten before.
It was 2009, and I was in the midst of my own recession-induced struggle with life’s promises. I excused myself to finish reading the letter alone. What rose up in me was a sob so primal it felt as if lead had been poured down my guts and was rebounding back inch by inch. I had not known the heartbreak of my mother so vividly until then. I had not known how much more she wanted. How much I wanted and how excessively I had hated her, us, my father, for not measuring up. Myself for not being perfect. My mother for not finding a new man who could take care of us. We stayed in that same apartment, I shared that same bedroom until I unceremoniously insulted my mother at age 18, and was just as unceremoniously told not to let the door hit me on the way out.
In my adolescence, a semi-blur of rebelling, smoking, drinking, and anger at the paltry inconveniences of sharing no space with real people, there were things, real things, that should have caught my attention and couldn’t. Because they were just too much, and I knew, even though I knew nothing, that regular, non-poorness-affected middle-class people were definitely not dealing with them. Our lives were in chronic stallout. We could only get so far with emotions, because there were just too damn many, and we didn’t feel entitled to them—especially if they meant acknowledging that life was hard, and maybe unduly so.
While my girlfriends did have the odd drink-induced admission that their current lives, their missing or imprisoned or institutionalized parents, their mothers and fathers who had abandoned them, were hurting them terribly and deeply and didn’t make sense, I admitted nothing. My denial of my personal devastation was armor against the reality of its affect.
My best friend’s mom had a friend named Sandy. Like my mom, my friend’s mom was tiny, and as Sicilian from Brooklyn as my mom was Irish from San Francisco. Sandy was tallish, bleach-blond and thick, and had a throaty, smoke stained laugh. She had kids that I didn’t know, but who were the same age as us, teenagers. She was a regular at the house, and usually laughed at us when we were getting in trouble for lying or mouthing off, which was approximately always. Sandy’s laughing usually made things better for us, easier. She had a boyfriend in prison named John. In the days before call waiting we’d be kicked off the phone in regular intervals when Sandy was waiting on a collect call.
We were on our way to a party when my friend told me they found Sandy’s body in the trunk of John’s abandoned car in Vegas. That he got paroled and the last time anyone saw her she was having a fight with him in someone’s front yard, maybe hers. And that was it. My friend told me just like that. She told me like she had to; like her bike had a flat tire and we were going to have to walk somewhere. And I forced myself to allow myself to feel. Which was all I could do to chip at the surface, because I knew Sandy was worthy of it. But we didn’t talk about it — with each other, or with anyone else.
This fact will always haunt me. It will always make me hurt for our young selves, knowing that it probably explained almost everything about us. Why didn’t we stop?
Why didn’t my friend cry, or get mad? Why didn’t we let the horror and the wrongness and the loss pass through us? I still don’t know for sure, but I think we couldn’t afford it.
I did not have words when it came to my inner life. I loved my girlfriends growing up, and I never stopped trying to save them from themselves, which conveniently kept me from thinking and feeling for myself. In spite of the fact that I wrote stories and plays and essays from the time I was seven or eight, that my nickname in the neighborhood was Miss Vocabulary, and that words were arguably my greatest refuge, I could not articulate what I felt inside about a million things born of poorness, including being part of a system we all suspected was set up to humiliate us away from wanting help. I couldn’t even think it yet.
I could say a lot of other things. My words trickled effortlessly when my fifteen year-old self took down some would-be fag-basher for his own internalized cravings, or an ahistoricized and self-proclaimed hick for her Confederate flag, or a girl in gym class for her circuitous and racially charged cataloging of my threaded cross-wearing, Spanglish- and-Spanish speaking white little sisters. My cousin was queer. The black boys I grew up with had been in the crosshairs of cops, teachers, and middle-class white people with daughters since they were old enough to cross the street alone. Prop 187 was bringing out all kinds of true colors the white middle class didn’t even know their rainbow contained. I heard that timbre in their voices, the taste of metal in their mouths. I recognized us in their words.
When I heard my mother scoff at Reagan quoted on the nightly news, I was still too young to understand the context of his shoddy race baiting, his ignominious and enduring invention: the welfare career, and its crowned head, the welfare queen. I was just mad he thought we were sitting on our asses. But, no matter—if he really believed in these fantasies, both of the American Dream and the underclass trying to subvert it, his policy recalibrations were a minor to his major in rhetoric and condemnation. Reagan’s Trojan horse was truly in priming the national imagination for what Ted Kennedy would later term “legislative child abuse.”
That came at the hand of our favorite chair throwing, Big Mac-gobbling, liberal policy wonk, President Bill Clinton. And with Clinton’s annihilation of welfare policy, in a moment when enrollments were shrinking with the recession moving slowly to our rearview, came my mom, sitting at the kitchen table with her tattered Garcia y Vega box full of bills, crying. The pathologizing of poor people after welfare reform, while Clinton was simultaneously lauded for his progressive leadership, was maddening. While my words had not come, my feelings, without repository in the care for girlfriends on the verge, were surfacing.
At nineteen, I did not know that anyone outside our realm really saw the numbers game that was being enacted— crudely incentivizing states to decrease the amount of people receiving cash assistance “any way they could." This was their quantitative solution for the qualitative challenge of poorness. It made no sense, and I still hadn’t gotten used to that.
While my sixteen year-old sisters took up two thirds of the rent, I had gone out in the world. Hiding from the trappings of personal history and class stratification, I had begun the senseless process of what I thought of as laying the foundation for a better life. Advancing, leaving, was the only way out. I recognized the currency in aiming for this in media everywhere—and the consequences of not. My only hope was that if nothing else was betrothed to me, as a girl with little insulation and no safety net, certainly I was capable of snapping up something better if I avoided getting knocked up and worked hard. This was my religion.
It would take many more years for me to find words to describe the displacement of identity, of secret codes, expression. More years to tease out and frame, for the uninitiated, the concept of struggling as a consequence of no one thing alone. It was a bramble thick tunnel, a negotiation of primal instincts and their real world reception.
I did not know that anyone on the inside resisted when Clinton sold us out. Many years later I would meet someone who did: former Assistant Secretary of the HHS during his administration, Peter Edelman, who resigned in protest to the 1996 reforms.
I wish I had known. I would have held that tightly. I would not have felt so defeated. I might have even found my words sooner.
I might have just said to that woman sitting to my right in 1998 that I think it’s important that we don’t assume who is among us. That I’m fatigued from being cast in a role because I can speak so palatably, and then watching you squirm or look at me with sad, vacant eyes when I feel secure enough to tell you about my actual lived experiences. I’m tired of my own sad, vacant eyes when I hear you call someone lower class, with that all too familiar metallic taste in your mouth.
I might have also admitted that yeah, we too had so much hope for poorwhitetrash Bill Clinton, but the degree to which he let us down, and ever more so, future generations, was more than one with liberal values, if you claim to have them, should allow for.
But I might also say that I’d like you, specifically, to not say poorwhitetrash anymore, and I’d like you to not say ghetto. You probably not aware of this, but you’re not even using it right. It doesn’t mean broken. And also, you really hurt my feelings and make me not trust you when I see pictures of you with your teeth blacked out, brandishing a fifth of Jack at some kind of hillbilly theme party. That all you’re doing is laughing at a white person for not claiming their birthright of white privilege and eh hem... who’s the backwoods racist now?
In the end, if I had my words sooner, I might have also implored you, and my coworker, who would later become a friend and even an inspiration, to please, with love in my heart—just start thinking about these things half as hard as me and my family had to work to earn the things that were for you, rites of passage.
I would have said it all very nicely. Because even though you’re not in on the joke, I probably still like you.
Ria Fay-Berquist is a writer, filmmaker, and audience engagement strategist for documentary and fiction film. Born in San Francisco during the fleeting cultural mutiny that came after disco and before the crush of AIDS, she now makes Los Angeles her home. Ria welcomes the conversation and quarantines the rabid on twitter @fayB, and at prizefightfilms.com.
[Image by Jim Cooke, photos via Getty/AP]