Being poor and a lifetime legacy

The past few days I have been hanging at a fellow blogger’s site where the issue of Black woman and money came up. Its one of those times where a blog reading really hit a place in me and made me sit back and think, rather than trying to continue that dialogue at the other bloggers spot, I figured I would let that conversation serve as a launching pad here at my house, casa Black Girl.

In many of my postings I have made clear reference to the fact that I grew up as I like to say poor on a bad day, working class on a good day. My little brother can attest to the fact that ours was a house that getting real Oreos and real Frosted Flakes was cause for celebration, in hard times we once had to resort to using newspaper because we had no toilet paper and mustard in tuna because that’s all we had to eat and to this day I hate English muffins because they remind me of food we got once from a food pantry. Yet in the midst of hard times my folks worked to keep me and later my brother motivated to make decisions in our life that would chart a different course for us and considering that they turned out 2 decent adults, they did an ok job. However there were some life skills they didn’t have and therefore didn’t pass on to either of us and both of us still are paying the price for their lack of financial skills.

See, my folks rarely had 2 nickels to rub together, pretty much in 33 years together they lived paycheck to paycheck. Sometimes affording tony areas like Chicago’s Lincoln Park, though when we lived there, we had no furniture and slept on the floor. However living in a good area does make doors open since as a young child I had access to great parks, the zoo and museums and more importantly good schools. Unlike by the time my folks moved to the south-side of Chicago in the late 80’s when gang warfare made the area park a place that you avoided at all costs. An area that lacked a full service grocery store and the library was inadequate, a place with nothing for kids to do since going out and playing wasn’t all that safe.

Anyway living paycheck to paycheck mostly off my Dad’s earnings since my Mama was a stay at home Mom for many years meant, there was just enough money, never extra and sometimes not even enough. We never took a family vacation, closest we ever came was the family reunion on years that my folks could scare up the gas money and staying at a hotel… well I never stayed at a hotel until I was an adult staying on my own dime.  The way my folks lived meant they didn’t use banks, they either cashed checks on the bank the checks were drawn or they used the check cashing joints which in Chicago are known as currency exchanges. I don’t ever recall seeing my parents sit down and write out checks, I only recall one time they had a checking account and it was a short lived affair. No, they got money orders to pay bills at the currency exchange, I recall the times when they didn’t have enough to make ends meet and seeing Mama on the phone with the utility company trying to keep a utility from being shut off.

Watching the way they lived meant in my early adult years I modeled the behavior that was shown to me, for years I didn’t have a bank account. I lived in a cash economy, when the spousal unit and I started dating I remember he was stunned that I didn’t have a checking account. At the time, I was making good money as a sales rep, living in a nice area of Chicago yet I still handled my finances the same way I had seen my parents. It had never even dawned on me to open up a bank account, though it was not long after we started dating that I decided to change course and use a bank rather than a mattress for saving money. On a slightly different note though, if the economy keeps going the way it is, more of us may be going back to that mattress.

In my early adulthood I often chose to buy at places that advertised low monthly payments rather than paying attention to the long term, again it was because it was the behavior modeled to me and it wasn’t until I was exposed to anything else that I realized there were other options.

I share this because over the years especially in my lines of work  when I did direct service human services work, I would encounter folks who didn’t get why po folks made the choices they did, why go to rent a center and be overcharged when  in a few months you could save and own a TV outright? Well as someone who has been in various places economically, I understand all too well the focus on short term fulfillment over waiting. Being poor sucks plain and simple. Life is hard when you are poor and sometimes the need for some sort of frivolity is what keeps you sane even when its not in your best interest. I suspect this is one of the reasons for addiction issues being high in areas of scarcity, folks wanting an escape and often cheap booze, drugs or cigarettes provides that momentary relief. Or some choose to have tv’s and gaming systems to keep them sane.

Yet what about folks who are no longer poor yet still engage in poor folk behavior? Honestly and I say this as a parent, I think the way we are raised impactsus more than most of us would like to say. For me having kids over the years has brought back a lot of the memories of scarcity. One of the worst memories I have is of being 10 and taking ballet lessons which by some miracle we got for free, yet at recital time my folks didn’t have the money for the outfit so Moms rigged something up courtesy of the thrift shop, as you can guess I was laughed at. Its those memories that for many years drove me to overspend in regards to my son’s needs and making sure he would never be the laughingstock. Its those memories that for years drove my desire for designer purses. It was my way of saying I am just as good as so and so.

Thankfully I have dealt with those demons for the most part but they still rear their ugly heads from time to time though just last month, they resurfaced when mini me was interviewed for a swanky Montessori preschool. So I know they still exist its just that I am in a place where I have learned to identify them and work on them.

Frankly I think financial education should be taught in high school, seriously how many folks don’t know how to properly balance a checkbook? I have friends who grew up with abundance who regularly bounce checks because they don’t keep track of things. The difference between them and a poor person is that my friends have access to resources and can transfer money from a savings account, wait till payday or get a loan from the parents. Options that folks on the edge don’t have.  In the ideal world, parents would teach their kids these things and I know I do, along with other fundamentals like cooking and taking care of oneself. I didn’t learn domestic skills at home since my folks wanted me to aspire to higher places yet when I found myself at 18 and married, it was a hard lesson to learn. I also suspect that if more folks actually knew how to cook from scratch at an elementary level we would all be better off health-wise. 

Poverty does not stop just because one stops residing there physically, the lessons that are often modeled for a child growing up poor still live within you even when you become a college educated professional. By the same token my observations of folks who grew up with privilege regardless of race, even if they hit hard times the lessons that were modeled to them still reside in them. Our upbringing impacts us more than we realize which is why for those of us raising kids, we must be mindful of the lessons we model for our kids.

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