Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Sometimes it's hard being a social scientist who grew up poor.

I'm listening to a presentation on an in-depth-interview-based study of SNAP and low-income family food security at work. It's still really, excruciatingly difficult for me to listen to academics and other researchers talk about coping strategies that my family used, ways of living that I didn't know weren't normal for the majority of my childhood.
Using my new technical jargon from being in my field of study/line of work, I now have the vocabulary to say that while I was growing up, my family often fluctuated between being food secure and food insecure. I remember being shocked when I would go to friends' houses and be shocked by the fact that they had cabinets full of snacks, and would open the cupboards and offer me whatever I'd like. Food was regulated in our house. You had to ask if you could have a bowl of cereal--and it was only supposed to be before school in the morning, not as an after-school snack. We never had cookies or snack cakes lying around. 

The refrigerator being full happened once a month, after my mom's first paycheck, and the rest of the month was spent watching it slowly dwindle. The second paycheck had to pay the rent (later, the mortgage) and the bills, so we got used to opening the fridge knowing there was little in there. Fresh fruits were a rarity, because they didn't last long enough to be worth their price--we had fruit cups. Jello was fruit. We clipped coupons. To this day, when I go to the grocery store, I find it difficult to pass by something I eat that is on sale without buying it. Looking back, I remember my mom making dinner for my brother, sister, and I, and not eating herself. When I was a kid, I believed that she wasn't hungry. I know better now. I was on free lunch through elementary school, and I honestly don't know how we would have survived otherwise. Summers were especially hard because suddenly we had to fend for ourselves.

The lecturer said that the first bill to get skipped when families are short on food funding is cable and/or internet, the second is the cell phone, and the third is the utilities.I know that there were bills we alternated paying--you can skip the electric bill for a month before they cut your lights off. The lecturer is calling this "robbing Peter to pay Paul." I thought that was just how the world worked. I remember once, when I was in 5th or 6th grade, our water got shut off, and we didn't have the money to cover what we owed, so we went to Walmart and bought the cheapest jugs of water they had, and filled up the bathtub. My brother, sister, and I all bathed in that cold water for two days while we waited for my mom and stepdad to scrounge up the money to turn the water back on. Cable was a luxury. We quickly learned not to ask why the channels were gone, or when they'd be back. We didn't turn the heat on until there was snow on the ground, if then. We NEVER turned the AC on. That's what blankets and windows are for. We went without a car for months because we couldn't afford repairs, and the cost of my mom taking the bus to and from work during the intervening time just took money away from other necessities.

Even now, I helped my mom and grandmother pay for Thanksgiving this year. Since I went away to college, money has traded hands between my mother and I one way only, and not the way you'd expect--I know that I am a lifeline for my mother in the way my grandmother used to be when she was working. I worry that she still isn't turning her heat on early enough, or that the fridge is still near-empty towards the end of the month, now that we're both paying for my little sister to go to school. I marvel at how effectively my mom managed our un-awareness of how short we were on money, food, and other necessities, and I worry about what she does and doesn't tell me now. Insulation is scary.

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