In 1997 we were a family of 3. Together my husband and I earned something like $13,500 for the year, $200 above the figure in the HHS poverty guidelines for 1997. Elwood brought home $1188 per month, 11 months out of the year, as a doctoral student. I really really really wanted to be with my new baby full time, and I mostly was. I worked a few hours here and there, about which more below.
It was not easy to live on $1200 a month, even in 1997. When I told you about baby Alex's garage-sale clothes earlier this month, I did not mention that virtually all of his clothes were garage-sale clothes. He was well into toddlerhood before I went to Target and bought him a shirt that had actual tags on it.
We ate pots and pots of lentils that year, because lentils cost 44 cents a pound on sale. At Christmas I gave the same gift to my two vegetarian sisters-in-law: two bags each of lentils (red and green, natch, because nothing says festive like a bag of cheap dried legumes) accompanied by a homemade recipe book filled with all my newly discovered lentil dishes. That year I needed to figure out Christmas gifts that cost <$3 apiece.
The experience of living near the poverty line shaped me in ways I did not anticipate. It refashioned the way I thought about healthcare and it challenged prejudices I hadn't even known were there. But only recently have I thought about the ways in which privilege buffered us during the years that we were living on a shoestring.
One key to staying solvent was that we lived in a small rental house in a crummy neighborhood. The day I watched a drug deal go down in our driveway I trembled and wondered if we were doing the right thing. I did not know -- I mean, I had NO idea -- how much my race influenced the interactions I had with the police in that mostly black part of town.
Another key to staying afloat was that we drove a butterscotch yellow 1978 Dodge Aspen, handed down from my grandmother-in-law. (In case you weren't driving in 1997, a 19-year-old car was, like, a centenarian car in those days. Doddering, palsied, slightly eccentric.) I remember feeling a little embarrassed about that car, and trying to overcome the embarrassment because I knew better. I don't remember much awareness of how lucky we were to have someone give us a well-maintained car. When its head gasket blew in December of 1997, my parents were able to lend us the car my brother wasn't using at college, and another doc student let us store the Aspen at his house until he could teach Elwood how to tackle the lengthy and complicated repair. More privilege (parents with a spare car), more connections (a grad student friend with tools, space, expertise).
I took Alex to public health for most of his well-child exams, because when I left my job our health insurance went from a BMW plan to a Yugo plan, and then eventually to a rusted-out moped plan. I remember so vividly the incompetence and contempt of the nurse practitioner who examined him there. I remember my astonishment that she did not understand the anatomy of a middle ear infection (in! a! pediatric! clinic!) and my anger at her immediate escalation to unwarranted scare tactics when I asked about treatment options. I still wonder whether she treated all of her patients so scornfully, or if she wasn't used to pushback on her (wrongheaded) recommendations. I do not remember whether I understood the privilege that allowed me to seek follow-up care at the outpatient clinic where I had worked before Alex was born, and to have my ruffled feathers smoothed by a thoughtful doctor who knew me as a fellow healthcare professional.
I did not see how lucky I was when my MA advisor called me up out of the blue to ask if I would work part-time at home for him: flexible hours, $20 an hour. I did not fully appreciate the gift of an allied health credential-- my ticket to flexible part-time well-paid work. I was poor that year, yes, but I was poor by choice. I knew it was a temporary kind of poor.
I remember that I really did not want to ask family for help, but I don't remember seeing how much help they were already giving us: the showers that welcomed the first grandbaby on both sides, the plane tickets from my frequent-flyer mom that allowed Alex and me to visit her without making the trek in our senescent Aspen, the checks they picked up and the gifts they gave us when we were together.
I've been thinking about all this because in the wake of the election I've been thinking so much about the experiences of Americans living near the poverty line. I remember feeling proud that we survived those days without racking up any debt, but I did not see how unrepresentative our experience was. It wasn't until I lived in Scotland that I appreciated how different foreign residency is from tourism. It took me years to realize that I had only been a poverty tourist. It's not my place to tell the residents how to live.
These days it takes us a lot less than a year to earn $13,500. If my 1997 self could see our current monthly savings:income ratio, she would wonder where we had gone off the rails. (Dear 1997 Jamie, don't worry; you haven't started gold-plating the non-existent elevators in your home. It's just that you have two kids in Catholic high school and one in college. And you're feeding teenagers, who will only eat so many lentils before they mutiny.) I don't ever want to forget the worry that plagued me during that year when we had so little margin. And as we lurch closer to plutocracy in this country, I hope that all of us in the middle class can remember: we don't even know what we don't know about life with no margin.