The Trauma of Poverty

Here’s a thought to consider…

“I believe those who sink from prosperity to poverty probably come, in the process, to understand what the world is like.”– Lu Hsun, Chinese writer, 1881-1936

I didn’t sink from prosperity, but I did grow up middle-class and go downhill from there. And my experience of middle class life felt more like poverty than it needed to because my depression-era mother hoarded money. Rather than use and enjoy money, it stayed in the bank as a hedge against economic catastrophe.

I remember my years of being poor as a series of snapshots, each a moment, a flash of an image, with the flash leaving an afterglow of pain around the edges of my vision.

As a 17 year old I learned this fun fact: a loaf of day-old white bread, a small jar of peanut butter and a small jar of jam can make meals for a week. Popcorn (the old fashioned kind you pop yourself in a pan) or ramen noodles are a filling meal if you’re living well enough to have access to a kitchen. No kitchen = PB&J.

I remember the moment when the single pair of tennis shoes I owned were so worn the plastic at the back of the heel cracked, and rubbed a raw spot on my Achilles heel that bled as I walked. I remember the physical pain. I remember asking myself what I would do without in order to have enough money to buy new shoes. My careful budget of $20 per week covered food, non-food essentials, medical, dental, clothing, haircuts, travel, transportation, entertainment and leisure (as if there were any travel and leisure, a ridiculous notion). Put a Band-Aid on my heel and carry on.

I clearly remember a particularly startling moment from the poverty years. As I walked between Portland’s north park blocks and the PSU campus, a homeless man approached me and offered me a couple of his panhandled dollar bills with kind words to get myself something to eat. Did I look that thin and hungry? Back then, taking myself out for a special dinner was walking to the downtown McDonalds and getting a Filet-o-Fish and a hot fudge sundae, a meal that cost about $1 back then.

Those were the days when “downsizing” (a term that didn’t exist then) meant moving from a studio that had a Murphy bed, an orange synthetic shag rug, a popcorn-textured ceiling and an occasional dead rodent, to a “sleeper” room. If you ironed a shirt on that rug and got off the edge of the towel that was functioning as the ironing board, you’d have orange plastic melted to your garment forever. My sleeper had room to put a sleeping mat on the floor, a tiny closet to hang a few clothes, and a sink. There was no kitchen, and the bathroom that was down the hall didn’t have enough hot water or water pressure to shower properly. I missed cooking the aforementioned popcorn or ramen, but cutbacks had to be made to live within my means.

Living in a car wasn’t an option – I’d never had the privilege of owning a car.

As I fought to survive, I had insult added to injury when my boyfriend at the time had a birthday that granted him access to his trust fund and he immediately dumped me to go out with women who wore better clothes, had more stylish makeup and hair, drove nice cars, and were comfortable being wined and dined – felt it was their due, in fact. In other words, I was left for not being someone I never had the opportunity to be. We all want to be loved as we are, respected and valued in a relationship. It was a dagger to the heart to be thrown away. I was from Gresham Oregon; I didn’t even know what trust funds or debutantes were when I first met him. I didn’t care about any of that. His affluence was unknown to me when we first started dating; he was just another student in a sweater and blue jeans when we met. The details seeped out around the edges as we spent more time together. It was an unexpected twist in my story – the loss of the relationship and his love exposed me to another kind of poverty – poverty of the heart.

But in his defense, my constant state of fear and worry didn’t make me the fun companion he wanted. And he had no more idea of my circumstances than I had of his; I kept my situation absolutely private from him and everyone else. I was ruled by:

  • Pride – much too prideful to divulge my situation.
  • Shame – too embarrassed and secretive.
  • Constant dread and anxiety – not knowing how bad the future would get. The constant self-doubt. Would I get across the finish line with my degree and get a job before I ran out of money?
  • Family rules – it is vulgar and uncouth to speak openly of money.
  • Feminist ideals – I wanted the equality of paying my own way. I wanted to be judged on strength and intellect, not make-up, hair, and clothes.

And also in his defense, he was generous and thoughtful in many ways. He cooked me meals, and included me in his family’s home cooked dinners too; I was certainly more well fed that I would have been without him. But it was a strange disconnect, living in a state of constant financial hardship while dating someone who had never given a thought to financial insecurity even one day in his life.

The only help I ever asked for or received was school financial aid, which was a mix of loan, grant, and a work-study job. I never asked for food assistance, health care assistance, or any kind of benefits available to low income people. I didn’t want to think of myself in those terms. Ironically, fellow students who were rich kids received food stamps, and used the money to throw parties and eat steaks, without a twinge of shame. It stung my pride when my boyfriend referred to my student financial aid as welfare. There was a huge distinction in my mind between student aid and welfare, but clearly not in his.

As I was finally finishing college (by then I was 27, it took a decade of starting and stopping to work my way through school) there was the realization I had less than $200 left to live on and no income – no student financial aid, no work-study job, no $ to buy work clothes for interviewing, no job. This came after three tough years of living on the miserly $20 per week. I was exhausted from the work and the constant worry. Exhausted and panicked, not the ideal headspace for job hunting.

So what are the lasting ramifications to my psyche and my soul?

I am decades past poverty and the precipice of homelessness, but it still resonates inside me as fear and conservatism, and if I’m being honest, stinginess. Sometimes I feel survivor guilt. My poverty had a purpose (education) and was time-defined (graduation); it didn’t stretch out to the horizon as far as the eye can see. I wonder how much harsher it would have been without an end-point.

Like someone with an eating disorder, whose troubled relationship with food causes them to binge and purge, I would go on to have a troubled relationship with money even when I had a good income. After the years of austerity and discipline around spending, I’d occasionally binge spend my way into debt. Then I’d go back to depriving myself and saving every penny I could against the day it would all be taken away and I’d be living the trauma of poverty once again. My thinking was exactly like my mom’s, and probably several generations who experienced hardship before her. So I did without things I could easily afford. I used things past their expiration date, like I was forced to do with my tattered tennis shoes, even though it was no longer necessary. Someone with an eating disorder might eventually get healthy in her relationship with food, but it’s a journey. I might eventually get right in my relationship with money, but I’m still on the journey.

It all worked out for me. I did get a job. I eventually owned a car, and then a house. Many years later I bought a pickup truck with the intention of putting a camper on the back, telling myself it was a buffer against homelessness. Now when I drive down the street seeing tent after tent, broken down cars, pickups with campers, and dilapidated mobile homes I know in my heart that could have been me. Yet I rarely give money to panhandlers. I wish I’d be at least as generous as the homeless man that shared his two dollars with me all those years ago. But I’d need more one-dollar bills than a guy in a strip club if I wanted to give everyone a little something – there’s a hand out on every corner and in every entranceway.

I wonder if the person who won the billion-dollar lottery yesterday has a good relationship with money? I sure hope so. I’ve learned poverty of the mind can persist no matter how much money you have. Why did I buy a pickup truck to live in when I owned a house? Worthiness, ability to receive, responsible stewardship, ability to keep money in circulation rather than hoard – these issues carry on past obtaining wealth. Maintaining wealth has its own issues, as many past lottery winners can attest.

I wonder what will happen to the psyche of all the kids whose families have lost jobs and businesses in the current pandemic-caused recession. How will the trauma reverberate through their lives in years to come? Will it bring forward a more compassion society, or will there still be judgment and shaming of the poor?

If I could have known how well my story would progress, if I’d known I’d have more comfort and security than I ever imagined, then the journey might have been less traumatic. I didn’t have a crystal ball. Consequently there’s been a lot of PTSD, a lot of healing, and ongoing work to maintain a healthy relationship with money. The journey from poverty mentality to abundance mentality is the spiritual journey of a lifetime.

“No man is born into the world whose work is not born with him.”– James Russell Lowell

“Say yes to life, even though you know it will devour you. Because among the obstacles and, to be sure, the cruelties of life, are signs that we are on a primary spiritual adventure (even though it seems to be taking place in what we regard as an unmistakably physical world).”– Stephen Larsen

© Carol Merwin 2021

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