Kids living in poverty don’t have a lot of money — or options. But poor kids are survivors, and the life lessons they learn are heartbreaking but often invaluable. To research for this article, I asked our Liberal America fans and my friend/follower group for input. My best resource for the lessons in this article came from A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D. And yes, I pulled some of it from my own experience, including my many years of working with at-risk youth and my own life as a struggling single mom.
On one cold, wintry day, my daughter (pictured at right) was sitting on her bed and leaned against one of her windows. It broke. She was safe, fortunately, but we had to take pretty quick action on fixing the window. As a single mom with limited skills (and no money to hire anyone to fix it), we did the best we could do. A few layers of cardboard and some duct tape. As we were taping it up, I turned to my little girl and said “THIS is why you need to get a really good education.”
Here’s the thing. What is a quick temporary fix for some people (cardboard on a broken window) is too often a permanent fix for people living in poverty. That window stayed covered with cardboard and plastic until my father noticed it and had it fixed for us.
After that incident, every time we had to struggle really hard to get accomplished things that are pretty simple for people even just slightly more privileged than we were, I would always say “how’s that law degree looking to you?”
My kids and I became a team in ways that many people will never understand. The struggle was real. Really. And we lived it.
Here are some things that poor children know.
1. A fingernail file can be used to file a jagged edge if a tooth breaks.
2. We go to the doctor when we’re sick, but mom doesn’t.
3. We have to move a lot because sometimes we can’t afford the rent.
4. I don’t always tell my mom when I need school supplies. I can tell it makes her nervous.
5. Having to print something for school gives me anxiety. Our printer doesn’t always have ink. It’s easier for me to just get a bad grade on the project than admit to the teacher I can’t afford to print.
6. Ditto homework that requires the internet. Sometimes we have it, sometimes we don’t. People say “use the library” but there’s not always gas money to get there and they are only open one evening a week.
7. God doesn’t hear my prayers.
8. The only time I’ve ever been to a store to buy new clothes is when my aunt took me. The dressing rooms were foreign to me.
9. I learned how to cook ramen noodles when I was six years old. I was hungry when I got home from school and mom wasn’t ever there to cook because she was working.
10. Healthy snacks are expensive. Ramen noodles are cheap.
11. My grandmother criticizes my mom for not feeding us more healthy food. What she doesn’t understand is that healthy food usually costs a lot more.
12. We can never get the chicken nuggets at McDonald’s. We have to order from the dollar menu that mom calls garbage food.
13. Every day when I get off the bus, I’m scared until I get inside the house. Mom’s at work when I get home.
14. I know I’d be a really good football player, but we’ve never been able to afford for me to play.
15. When I go somewhere where there’s a piano, I love to try to play. I know I’d be really good but we’ll never be able to afford a piano or lessons.
16. I don’t wear different clothes every day.
17. We have to buy all white socks because if one gets lost or torn up, it may be a while before we buy more.
18. We are really good at cleaning our house with stuff that most people don’t use to clean, like bleach and vinegar.
19. I needed colored pencils for a project once. My teacher told me that if I didn’t bring them, I wouldn’t be able to do my project and I’d get a zero. I told the teacher I didn’t have any and she told me I’d better figure it out. On the way to school, my mom went into the grocery store. I was confused because she told me she didn’t have money. When she came out, she had the pencils but they were in her purse, not in a sack. I think she stole them. She was crying.
20. Mom keeps her toothbrush in her bedroom so that it doesn’t accidentally brush up against ours in the bathroom. Germs and she can’t afford to get sick and miss work or go to the doctor.
21. I have no idea what other kids are talking about when they’re talking about the latest TV shows. We’ve never had cable.
22. I sometimes dread the summer and weekends because at school, I eat two meals a day.
23. I’ve never tasted any of the cool cereals that my friends talk about.
24. When I get money from relatives for my birthday or Christmas, I use it to buy things I don’t want to ask mom for, like hair products and underwear.
25. My hair nearly always get too long between haircuts. I got sent home from school once because of it. Mom cut it herself.
26. Other kids make fun of my clothes.
27. I know what it’s like to be really cold in the wintertime.
28. We wear our jackets and gloves in the house in the winter.
29. When our dryer broke, we had to hang our clothes to dry. It took all weekend for my jeans to dry in the wintertime.
30. Christmas is about things we need, not things we want.
31. We can never buy cool clothes “just cuz.” They always have to be things that have a dual purpose. We can wear them to school, church, or whatever.
32. I’ve never been to summer camp. Even if we could afford to go, I’d be embarrassed about my old underwear.
33. I did go to summer camp. I was the only kid who could never buy snacks from the canteen.
34. I got my first job babysitting when I was 14. I couldn’t spend the money. We needed it for bills.
35. Sometimes we have to put stuff back in the checkout line because we don’t have enough money. The cereal always gets put back first.
36. Cashing a check is hard if you don’t have a checking account. You have to pay to cash it.
37. I’m an expert on what can and can’t be bought with SNAP and WIC.
38. One Christmas, we had no money so we went to the Dollar Tree where everything is a dollar Mom gave us each $5 and told us to go shopping for each other. It was the weirdest and funnest Christmas ever.
39. Sometimes we have to use dish liquid in the washing machine. It works if you only use a small squirt.
40. Sometimes we get sick and go to the doctor. He gives us an antibiotic and tell us to start it, but if he calls to say that our strep test came back negative, we can stop taking it. When this happens, Mom keeps that medicine so that she can take it if she has an emergency and gets sick.
41. Sometimes we want to pack cool lunches like some other kids do, but it’s cheaper to eat the school cafeteria food. Mom says the food’s not healthy, but we get free lunches so that’s what we eat. Mom gives us money every day so that we can buy an extra milk at school. It’s cheaper than if we bought it at the grocery store.
42. Sometimes we don’t eat if there’s a mean kid in the line. We don’t want them to know we’re getting free lunch. They’ll make fun of us forever.
43. Duct tape can fix almost anything. Mom makes a game out of it. If a window gets a crack in it, she fixes it with duct tape and uses the tape to make cool designs.
44. I sit really quietly when I get an ice cream cone, enjoying every lick.
45. I share a bedroom with my two younger siblings. It’s impossible to find a quiet place to do my homework.
46. I didn’t do as well as I should have in math classes because I couldn’t afford the calculator that was required.
47. I couldn’t be in Boy Scouts because we couldn’t buy the uniforms.
48. I couldn’t be in Girl Scouts because we couldn’t afford the books and patches.
49. You can make a whole meal out of gravy and white bread.
50. White bread is usually cheaper than wheat bread.
51. Spending the night at a friend’s house is awesome. They always have plenty food.
52. Butter and sugar sandwiches are the best.
53. We don’t trust the police. We know they won’t treat us fairly.
54. We eat a lot of: potatoes, beans, and cheap bread.
55. My mom lies about not wanting seconds.
56. I’ve learned that when mom says “do you want the rest of this [food],” what she’s saying is “if you don’t want it, then I’ll eat.” I’ve learned to say I’m full, even if I’m not, so that she will eat.
57. Hamburger Helper feels like a gourmet meal.
58. When I got home one day, I let it slip that the other kids went on a field trip and I stayed behind. She asked why I didn’t go and I told her it cost money and I didn’t want to ask. Later, I heard her crying.
59. I’ve had to stay home from school when my little brother was sick because Mom couldn’t miss work.
60. I know what day Frito Lay dumps the expired chips in a dumpster.
61. We can’t always afford to go to the laundromat and we have to wear dirty clothes.
62. A bottle of Febreeze can be used to cover the smell of dirty clothes.
63. When my shoes start to become too small, I get worried.
64. My pants are always too short about two months after we buy them.
65. I know exactly how many miles our car will go after the low fuel light comes on.
66. We take blankets in the car because the car doesn’t have heat.
67. I’ve never had a birthday party.
68. We don’t always get our presents — birthday and Christmas — at the right time.
69. When my mom complained to her sister about not having enough money to raise her kids, her sister told her “you should have closed your legs.”
70. We’ve never been able to take all of the school supplies that we were supposed to have.
71. I’ve never bought a school yearbook or school pictures.
72. I’ve never bought a book at a school book fair.
73. One winter when we ran out of propane and couldn’t buy any for a week, mom made us one huge bed in the floor in the living room. She brought every blanket in the house and we stayed in there all the time staying warm.
74. Our grass gets high sometimes. We don’t have a lawn mower and mom never has enough money to buy one. She usually does have $50 to pay someone to mow the grass but sometimes she has to wait a couple of weeks to get the money.
75. Mom misses my open houses at school and my football games because she doesn’t always have gas. She has a neighbor friend who I can ride with to my games.
76. I’ve never had a new coat. Mom says that we’re lucky that someone always gives us one of their old ones just when we need one.
77. We learned that washing our clothes by hand is a lot of work. Our washer broke and it was two months before we could afford a new one.
78. When we finally got a new washer, Mom bought it at a place where you can rent to own. It costs twice as much to buy things that way. Mom says it’s expensive to be poor.
79. One time Mom had to write a check for the electric bill. She said she knew that she didn’t have the money in the bank, but she had to do it or they would cut off our electricity. She said the bank would pay it. They did, but she had to pay them an extra $34 because of not having enough money in the bank. The electric bill was late and we had to pay the electric company $10 for being late.
80. We’ve never met our doctor. We go to a clinic and a nurse sees us every time.
81. If we go to the grocery store and pay with money, the clerks are nice. When we pay with our food stamp card, the clerks are rude.
82. We know that if we go to college, it’s going to cost us a lot of money because we’ll have to get loans. Poor kids have to pay a lot more for an education.
83. We don’t get to participate in some school activities if they cost money. Even stuff like band costs more money than we can afford.
84. We eat a lot of unhealthy food. Carbs and fats are cheaper than protein.
85. I have a poor friend who lives in the inner city. He’s afraid all the time. Mom says it’s because he hears a lot of gunshots when he’s trying to sleep and during the day. She says that he doesn’t know how to turn off the fear.
86. I’ve never ordered a soda at a restaurant.
87. We never take anything for granted. Whether it’s candy, toys, food, or cool clothes, we know it’s a blessing.