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On being poor
People line up at a food pantry. The number of people in poverty rose in 17 states, the Census Bureau says.
September 20th, 2012
05:02 PM ET

On being poor

By Moni Basu, CNN

(CNN) The Census Bureau released a depressing statistic Thursday: 46.2 million people in America fell below the poverty line last year. One in five children are poor. 

What does it feel like to live in poverty?

Writer John Scalzi knows.

He remembers a Southern California childhood marred by a broken family. His mother put her two children in the back of the car and drove away from the home they’d known.

She bought a box of Raisin Bran and warned her children: “That has to last.”

John Scalzi's essay on poverty was based on his own experiences.

Scalzi, 43, was in the first grade then.

Years later, the Raisin Bran memory became a line in an essay called “Being Poor.” He wrote it in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when so many asked why the poor of New Orleans had not fled their drowned city.

It occurred to him then that wealthier Americans did not understand that the poor do not always have the luxury of choice.

But he knew.

He was the kid who wore the cheap shoes from Lucky Drug Store – the ones with the glued-on soles. He could feel them come off on the playground.

He was the kid who discovered letters from his mom to his dad begging for child support and the kid hoping he would get invited to a friend’s for dinner. He once stole a piece of meat from Ralph’s supermarket, fried it up and cleaned the plate before Mom came home. He then told her she didn’t have to make any dinner because he wasn’t hungry anyway.

Here are a few other ways Scalzi measured poverty:

Being poor is getting angry at your kids for asking for all the crap they see on TV.

Being poor is going to the restroom before you get in the school lunch line so your friends will be ahead of you and won’t hear you say “I get free lunch” when you get to the cashier.

Being poor is living next to the freeway.

Being poor is a heater in only one room of the house.

Being poor is hoping your kids don’t have a growth spurt.

Being poor is Goodwill underwear.

Being poor is thinking $8 an hour is a really good deal.

Being poor is stopping the car to take a lamp from a stranger’s trash.

Being poor is making lunch for your kid when a cockroach skitters over the bread, and you looking over to see if your kid saw.

Being poor is a sidewalk with lots of brown glass on it.

Being poor is picking the 10 cent ramen instead of the 12 cent ramen because that’s two extra packages for every dollar.

Read Scalzi’s full essay here.

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Filed under: Census • Economy • How we live • Poverty • Who we are
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