Michael Mlekoday is the author of THE DEAD EAT EVERYTHING (Kent State University Press, 2013).
Drawing Blood: Being a Poor Person in America
Last night, I met my classmate’s significant other, let’s call him L, at a Ghostface concert. Waiting for the opening act to finish, four of us (my classmate, L, and another friend of mine—all grad students) sat in a booth and did the usual getting to know each other stuff—talking about where we were from, where we went to school, what our areas of interest are in our respective fields.
Both my classmate and L are from Southside Chicago. When he asked me what my parents do for a living, I answered the same way I’ve been answering for years: my mom used to be a phlebotomist (she drew blood) and is now a caregiver, my dad was a bar manager but he passed away a few years ago. He responded that his mom is an administrative assistant and his dad recently got promoted to regional manager of some company.
We both used tricks to make our parents’ jobs sound as respectable as possible. My mom hasn’t been a phlebotomist in over a decade, and when I was growing up, she was a pull-tab lady at a couple bars (if you’re not from Minnesota, you probably don’t know what that means, and that’s fine, don’t worry about it)—but I always mention phlebotomy first. Likewise, L said “administrative assistant” instead of “secretary.” I didn’t mention that my dad was unemployed for years before he died. Etc.
We did it because of shame—specifically, class shame.
I want to talk about being poor.
Much of my experience as a poor person in America is either invisible or unrecognizable to my middle- and upper-class friends. In order to get to a place where I can fully understand my own experience and background, and to help facilitate my friends’ own journeys in acknowledging intersections of power, oppression, and privilege in their own lives, I want to describe some of my experiences.
I think it’s always a good idea to start any dialogue about power and privilege by acknowledging my own privileges. I benefit immensely from white and male and able-bodied privilege, both in the world-at-large and with regards to my own social class. Because of those privileges, nobody ever assumes that I’m poor, and I am not asked to represent my social class. If I make a mistake in school or at a fancy dinner or whatever, nobody assumes it’s because I’m an uncivilized poor person (while people of color are more often assumed to be poor, in addition to the other systemic oppressions they face). I think we can call this a kind of “passing privilege.” Moreover, as a poor person in America, I still have access to comforts and securities that poor people in developing countries don’t have—I have air conditioning, computer and internet access, cell phones, etc. All these kinds of privileges are written about extensively online and in books, so I’m not going to go in-depth, but you can definitely just Google that shit.
Today, my mom told me that a process server has been trying to find her, stopping by her sister’s house and her place of employment regularly (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ve definitely seen it in movies: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Service_of_process). She doesn’t know which debt she’s being served over. The only way for her to find out what it’s for, and to get the server to stop harassing her sister and bosses, is to let them serve her the papers, which probably means she’s getting sued. In some cases, if a process server has exhaustively tried (and failed) to find you, they’re allowed to advertise in local newspapers about you. My mom could get fired, her family could get pissed at her, and she could be publicly shamed, if she doesn’t accept these papers. This is all legal.
A few days ago, I paid our family plan phone bill, as I have been doing off and on for months. My mother and I both make similar wages—and you know how grad students get paid, probably. Sometimes, I’m down on my luck and she’s able to send me a little money. Other times, she’s down on her luck and I’m able to send her a little money. While some of my friends are regularly able to borrow money from their parents—as uncomfortable and mortifying as it might be—I often give my mom money.
Early last summer, my mom got evicted from her apartment for non-payment of rent. My friends were frantically trying to finish their final essays for the semester, and I was frantically trying to figure out a way for my mom to have a home.
In junior high school, there was a week where we went to the career resource center and researched our parents’ careers to get ideas of what we wanted to do when we grew up. I lied and pretended my dad was a doctor because I knew there wasn’t a career file on bartending.
There was a time during college when a debt collector was calling me regularly—I was afraid to answer, because those people are scary, so I don’t know if they were calling about me or about my mom. It was nice, though, when they woke me up at 8am every day, because that meant that my cell phone hadn’t been shut off.
Around the same time, I slept with a fan on every night so that, immediately upon waking up, I could tell by the sound of my room whether my utilities had been shut off.
I still don’t answer calls from numbers I don’t recognize.
Because of some poor decisions when I was a teenager, I’ve been more or less blacklisted by a company that checks credit scores and histories for banks. I am not able to open a bank account. I have a pre-paid debit card that I have to refill at Wal-Mart. The Wal-Mart Money Center is the most depressing place I have ever been. And I’ve been to a Nickelback concert.
At this point, I probably sound like a wholly irresponsible moron who deserves debt collectors calling me all the time. This, too, is part of the way in which power operates on my life: growing up working class, I was never taught how to be financially responsible because my mother was never taught that, either. Instead of understanding how deeply this kind of cultural skill is tied to class upbringing, I’m afraid that my friends will judge me as personally inferior because of my debts and mistakes. Two of my more progressive (and middle/upper-class) friends have angrily lectured me about money. One of them made his then-girlfriend (who grew up working class) cry over money at least once. He’s not a jerk; he just doesn’t understand his own privilege.
The idea of publishing this essay is terrifying. It feels like coming out of the closet.
In addition to lacking an understanding of finances and responsibility, I also was very unprepared for college—not in an intellectual way, but fiscally. Because I’m a first generation college student, my parents knew next to nothing about college or how to pay for it. A friend told me to apply to private colleges because they have more scholarships, not mentioning that those schools are also, like, five times more expensive, so that’s what I did. I spent three years at a $30,000 / year institution, and, while I did get a fair amount of scholarships, I paid for my tuition and housing with student loans. I will likely pay back over $100,000 in student loan debt. I can’t ignore it, because I had family members co-sign my loans. 6 months after I stop going to grad school, I have to start paying these things back, and so I’m forced to get a high-paying job immediately out the gates. This is also true for a lot of my middle-class friends, but I imagine that many of them had a more thorough understanding of what they were doing when they took on the debt, whereas I had no clue.
I think that most of my progressive friends basically understand the material differences between being poor and having money—being able to go on vacations, owning houses and garages and cars, having health insurance, etc.—but it’s the cultural differences that are what make me ashamed to be poor. There are all kinds of things I was never taught or prepared for due to my social class, that all of my non-poor friends were taught and prepared for.
Lots of people criticize hiphop for being overly materialistic. But honestly, the reason “Juicy” speaks to me so forcefully is because fantasizing about having money is one of the funnest things a poor person can do. Last night, Ghostface did “C.R.E.A.M.” and I danced my face off.
There are ways of reclaiming a kind of power or pride in being working class. I can claim I’ve never had anything handed to me, I can say I’m a “real” American, I can boast about the cultural values I learned by being poor. Moreover, I am constantly reminded of how good I am at being broke, at how I can survive and even thrive when money is tight. Still, for the most part, I harbor great amounts of shame about my social class and what it means about me and my life.
One day, I will be a university professor, I will have paid back my student loans and debts, and I won’t be part of the working class anymore. Even then, my understanding of life and my place in culture will be haunted by the specter of poverty. I will be surrounded by people who grew up eating kale and vacationing overseas. When my colleagues, whose parents were professors or doctors or anthropologists, ask me what my parents did, I’ll say my mom was a phlebotomist.