History professor, author, and self-described “reformed politician” Dr. L. Madeline “Mad” Hildebrandt asked a simple question of her followers on Thursday.
While I didn’t reply (I rarely tweet, I usually just read), answers flew to my mind faster than I wanted them to.
I remembered how a years-long friendship with the daughter of a wealthy Missouri lobbyist was forever changed in my early 30s, when I griped about a bad day at the restaurant job I had to take after grad school because entry-level work in my field paid even less.
“Why don’t you get your parents to pay your rent?” she asked, as we sipped margaritas in the very nice West Hollywood apartment her dad paid for. She knew I was a foster kid with no parents to speak of, but still, she said it. Perhaps in that moment she thought I was just waitressing at a shitty chain restaurant to prove something she didn’t care to prove, trying on poverty out of principle … or something. Based on things that happened after this moment, though? She was just spoiled and insensitive. But that’s another story entirely.
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I don’t think Dr. Hildebrandt—whose Twitter feed is a stream of questions seeking engagement that rarely succeed—was prepared for the volume of replies she received, as indicated by this reply to herself she sent 14 hours after her initial tweet.
Regrettably, I found myself in a strange comparison vortex, centering my own experiences as I scrolled, waiting for my dogs to finish their morning scamper. Of course, there is no such thing as the suffering Olympics, but it’s still what I did.
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Respondents ran the gamut, and it was striking to see how many folks who “made good” chimed in.
Like this NPR host ...
… or this filmmaker.
An Oscar-nominated composer weighed in …
… as did the screenwriter of the ‘90s hit Young Guns (and Young Guns II).
I hate apple butter, but as a former “motel kid” myself, I certainly can relate. I grew up in a college town on the edge of Cuyahoga County—just close enough to both the Cleveland airport and I-80 to support three neighboring towns’ crummy motel districts. We lived in one such motel room for over three years; some time later, we’d run through those three despair clusters, in a cycle punctuated by couch surfing and brief leases always ended by eviction. Some rooms, like the one we lived in for three years, had small “dorm” fridges, or even full kitchenettes, but most did not.
And so by the time I was 12, I’d learned the value of winter weather and motel ice machines when needing to keep food cold, and to cook with whatever you could find. Long before panini presses had their heyday as the must-have small kitchen appliance, I was reheating sandwiches with standard-issue motel room irons meant for clothing wrinkled by suitcases.
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In August 2022, “professional shitposter” Alex Cohen broke the internet with a satirical tweet about cooking chicken in a hotel coffee pot—a tweet that far too many people took seriously.
While Twitter did what Twitter does, my brain went to the ways we’d use coffeemakers’ water heater and hotplate when living in motel rooms that provided them (most didn’t).
Back to Dr. Hildebrandt’s replies. Marketer Mike Whelan offered two great points—via a reply and a quote-tweet (QT)—about what he calls “decision fatigue.”
“Decision fatigue” is such a great way to describe it. The house of cards that poverty builds for so many leads to choices so many people have never had to make. Poverty is pretty far back in my rearview, but it doesn’t take much to bring it back in front of me, including the pang of embarrassment and adrenaline when a transaction is declined on a credit card (usually due to overzealous fraud protection, which I do appreciate).
Whelan shares one of those such moments:
Poverty, or even just the brink of it, is definitely a balancing act. Not just “decision fatigue” and prioritizing which things to buy or pay for, but often calculating one’s assets down to the penny. I spent the bulk of my adult teen years and 20s working in bars and restaurants, and since a trusted adult had abused my Social Security number to the point that I was on Chexsystems and had bottom-barrel credit, I lived a cash existence—at first because I had to, but then out of habit, and then out of ignorance.
So I had a little lockbox of cash in my bedroom, hidden in a place where I hoped my roommates would never look, since I trusted nobody. I kept meticulous notes about my earnings and what I’d need to hit key deadlines—rent being the most important and least malleable. The hope would always be that I’d have enough rent long before that final shift before the first, but it rarely happened.
Though it hit in the middle of the month, the Great Blackout of August 2003 almost ruined me. The power went out just before my biggest earning day of the week—College ID Night Thursday!—at a busy college bar on Cleveland’s Eastside, and it wasn’t back on in time for the almost as lucrative Friday. Just like that, I’d lost hundreds of dollars I deeply needed. But, as a wise person once said from a conference stage, people don’t run out of resources, they run out of relationships. I was able to borrow what I needed from a friend, and my rent was on time.
But before I swallowed my shame and asked for help? I was worried about eating, and about being evicted. Within weeks, I’d decided to leave service work and began pursuing a salaried position, which led to me going back to college, which led to grad school, which ultimately led me here.
Being poor does make you always try to see the sunny side of merely surviving, of course. It’s the only way to combat the unavoidable and seemingly permanent cloud of anxiety, as writer Jamie B notes.
The fear is so real. In addition to toilet paper, I also hoard other essentials from the paper products and cleaning aisles. And food. If a staple like flour or pasta is on sale, I’ll stock up even if it’s not on my shopping list. I moved last month and a dear, but fairly new, friend helping me organize my new kitchen lamented its lack of a pantry. “Where am I supposed to put 11 boxes of fusilli?” she complained.
I told her to put them in the coat closet; there are no words for the bulge her eyes made. After hoards of everything from my favorite teas to coarse-ground black pepper led her on trip after trip to the foyer, she finally asked what was up.
“You know how I grew up poor? This is how I deal with it now that I’m not, because I might be again one day.” She nodded without judgment, and I made a joke about how my new lack of a pantry might finally cure me of a quarter-century-plus of food-hoarding. It made us both laugh uncomfortably.
A couple days later, though, she was back … and she had an idea. I’d recently learned I need to install new electrical panels, and they won't fit in the current low-profile wall cabinet near the kitchen that houses such things. It’s going to be a whole-ass project to build a new cabinet that will accommodate them.
“What if, when you tackle that project, you make the new cabinet floor-to-ceiling? That way you’ll have a place for your food hoard and your coats.”
It was a genius idea, and one that acknowledged the reality of my bad joke: It won’t be easy to undo a lifetime’s fear of going hungry, or I’d have done it by now.
I felt so seen: Instead of being annoyed, like a certain daughter of a Missouri lobbyist who I used to know, or mocking me, or so many other choices she could have made, my new friend found a way to accommodate my scar tissue. I was baffled by her understanding.
Then I remembered: My new friend grew up poor, too. Of course she got it. Of course she didn’t judge.
The story of poverty is not just mine; I’m far from the only one who escaped it but still bears the scars.
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But by escaping it—through education, which ultimately led to a firmly middle-class career—I’m an alumnus of a group that still grows every day: Those still enduring poverty. Whether unable to work or only able to secure jobs that never pay enough, millions of Americans suffer this too-common condition, and millions more are on the brink.
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And even the ways we measure poverty, in largely unsuccessful attempts to counter it, are “fundamentally flawed.”
There are too many replies to Dr. Hildebrandt’s tweet to include them all here, but please do go check them out. Whether you’ve never been poor or you have, whether you still are poor or fear you may be soon, there’s a lesson there for everyone in what became a confessional of those who have found themselves struggling. It is by listening to those most affected by a circumstance that we best find empathy, and the determination to create a path toward changing it.
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UPDATE: Friday, Feb 3, 2023 · 11:29:11 PM +00:00 · Jessica Sutherland
Wow, folks, thanks for putting this story on the TL! These comments have been a joy to read and kept me at work late today. Please keep sharing your stories. I might sneak back in over the weekend, but if not, I’ll definitely be back in the comments on Monday—so keep an eye on your reply notifications!
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