Intersection 2: Poverty and Shame

I last published on this site in June, and it was part one of a series on Poverty. I had intended to publish the second part earlier, but I’ve been living with a little too much fear to address the topic. Over five months later, here is part II.

I just wrote the check for my property taxes for the year. It’s been a hard-fought battle to get there; the money I had set aside for this is busy doing other things this year, so I had to spend the last 10 months scraping the pennies together to pay this bill. There are options to pay it in two parts, which leaves me vulnerable to having the lien bought by a third party whose goal is to own the house for very cheap. It matters to me to have the house free and clear. I want to pay the tax bill all at once and get it done.

This has been a tough year. I learned early in the year that the savings I had loaned to a friend would come back to me much more slowly and erratically than we had both thought at first. So I began to figure out how to put the funds together to pay the taxes at the end of the year while not living in misery all year.

The first rule is that I’m not going to punish myself. I won’t deprive myself of the occasional beer or coffee with buddies. I won’t deprive myself of the work I love, and that gives me pleasure, even when it does not pay. I will allow myself occasional treats, such as buying myself new shoes, paying for some else’s beer, or taking my daughter out to breakfast.

The second rule is that I’m responsible for my behavior and social actions. I won’t lean on others to make them responsible for my security. I’ll ask for help when I need it, and I’ll try to ask effectively, and I’ll expect and accept ‘no’ as a good answer. When a friend says ‘yes’ over and over but never actually steps up, I take note of that and check with myself first to see if I’m communicating well. When that answer is also ‘yes,’ I’ll recognize that some friends are not able to be as supportive as they would like, and I’ll stop asking. I don’t owe anyone every detail about my life, but I won’t lie.

Given that rubric, I’ve been saving money in some uncomfortable ways. At more than one catered event, I would ask the caterer afterwards if I could have the leftovers. A couple of times, I ate for a week on hors d’oeuvres that would otherwise have been discarded. After some church dinners, when there were leftovers that were not sugar/simple carb heavy, I would ask to take home leftover cheese cubes and pepperoni slices.

There have been some unexpected health issues that have added to the financial burdens, but the insurance I was able to afford via the healthcare.gov website due to the Affordable Care Act has made the scary and probably very lengthy struggle ahead of me less terrifying. Still, co-pays and days not working due to medical issues add to the money worries.

The struggle has been to maintain some personal self-respect during all this. Raised in a family system that values independence, I have standards of self-competence that are perhaps unrealistic. I expect to be able to pay my own way. I expect, given my care and forethought with money, that I will have some savings. I expect that I will have the resources to care for myself, my home, and my car and to cover my healthcare costs unassisted.

I didn’t make it this year. I had to turn to others, and it hurt. Living on other people’s leftovers comes with a burden of shame. Living on what feels (to my middle-class, white sensibilities) like the edge of desperation comes with a burden of shame. I had to turn to my father (and I cannot say how much I loathe asking my father), I really needed the times that friends paid for the beer, and I really needed the leftover food. Need comes with a burden of shame.

Shame is a bitch. There’s no good reason for it. It’s not like guilt or culpability—the knowledge that one’s actions have damaged others. Guilt is knowing I did something I should not have done or that I have caused harm. Shame is the feeling that I am a bad person because of my choices or circumstances. Shame is the feeling that I am supposed to—perhaps even required to—feel pretty worthless.

One side effect of shame is that feeling worthless tends to drive me into isolation. My agoraphobia flares up, and I stay huddled in my house or my bed longer than I should. I only think of calling or contacting friends late at night, and then I decide to wait until later the next day, and then it feels like too long, and then I’m ashamed of losing touch, and I stop trying. And then I feel like a bad friend.

Reclaiming self-respect is hard when one is poor and white and middle class. Somehow we are not supposed to be poor. We have privilege (we really do) so we should be financially stable and well educated and employed. Struggling to respond as a faithful ally to all those facing injustice—and there are more every time. I know that the mere fact of home ownership puts me in a category of privilege beyond what many others have; I also know that the house is an albatross around my neck, anchoring me to a way of living that is probably not sustainable.

But I wrote the check for the property taxes, and the check is good. There is (thanks to Dad) a small account to cover long-overdue and necessary repairs. Thanks to a very dependable and dear friend, I had a great lunch with great company (and beer) every four to six weeks. He always let me pay the tip, and sometimes I got to pay for dessert, so I always felt like it was collaborative, and not like I was a charity case. I’ve been welcome to take leftovers, and my closest friends have let me set my own limits and they have mostly done so with grace and understanding. Some have had trouble understanding—their definition of poor doesn’t reach as deeply into small income numbers as mine does.

At the end of the year, I’ve had several friends show me real love and practical support. I’ve received gifts that go a long way toward easing the ‘up against the edge of destitution’ feeling I’ve been dreading this last month or two. A few of the friends I had counted on have had their own struggles this year, and some have chosen to distance themselves from my issues, or asked me to distance myself from theirs, even as they and I maintain a connection that may one day be richer—in every sense.

I’m grateful for my friends who have been there for me, and for those who could not be. I’m grateful beyond measure for the health insurance I could afford this year, and the confirmation that it will be cheaper next year. As I look forward to a year focused on repairing my house and managing my health, I’m looking at reinventing the way I face the world, and that’s both a little daunting and a little shameful.

And if you have to ask why, you don’t understand shame.

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This entry was posted in Anger, Ethics, Poverty, Self image, Shame, Social Commentary, Social interaction, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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