Escaping poverty is like walking on a trail and plowing face first into a spider web. Once you cross its threshold, you're in the clear, but you spend the next hour pulling the very fabric of nightmares out of your hair. For the rest of the walk, you are on a DEFCON 2 level of alertness, scanning every inch of your surroundings to make sure you never end up with a face full of terror again.
It's been two and a half years since I've written on the subject, and I'm still finding little strands of devil's silk in my hair -- old, obsolete habits that still hang around and taint my current life. If you've ever lived in poverty, you'll understand the insane habits you pick up, like ...
#5. You Only Go to the Doctor if It's an Emergency
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When You're Poor ...
When you're below a certain income, a social benefit kicks in to make sure you and your kids aren't riddled with disease and then spreading it through public Twister competitions. It's a medical card, and in the most basic terms, it provides free or discount medical treatment. I grew up with that benefit, which means that I went to the doctor so often that I could shoot vitamin lasers out of my eyes. At one point, they were using my sweat to cure hepatitis.
Just kidding -- I only went to the doctor when I broke a bone or needed stitches. Sometimes not even then. See, there's a problem with having a medical card that borders on paradox: In order to get one, you have to be poor, and the poverty-stricken people who do have them often don't have a means to actually get to the doctor in the first place. Growing up in impoverished neighborhoods, half the people I knew didn't have a car. Or they had a car, but it needed repairs so badly, it could only be used in an emergency. Or they had a working car, but they never had money to buy gas. Or they had gas, but their car had long since been converted into a meth lab.
Well, there's your problem.
When my mom did have a job, it was usually a shitty-paying part-time position that pushed her over the line of eligibility. Lots of people run into this. Since it's part time, the employer doesn't have to offer benefits, which means that employee is responsible for 100 percent of her medical bills. If she doesn't have cash on hand, that takes clinics completely out of the equation. The only medical facility that's required to treat you is a hospital, and even then only enough to stabilize you, stuff you into a catapult, and launch you the hell out of their building.
Because of all that, the only time you can realistically get treatment is when the injury or illness is so bad, it requires a trip to the emergency room. You become trained at a very early age to recognize the difference between a sprain and a fracture. You know on sight if a cut is bad enough to require stitches or if it can be taken care of with alcohol, iodine, and a butterfly bandage. Even broken fingers can be fixed with a Popsicle-stick splint and some tape to hold it on. Meanwhile, all the medical treatment you need is right there on that card, completely useless, because the doctor's office could be located on the moon, and it would be exactly as easy to get there.
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Hey, if anybody's heading that way later, I could use a lift.
Once You Escape ...
When you've grown up thinking that the doctor's office is the absolute last resort, it takes years to break that mindset. I've had a wisdom tooth steadily decaying away for the last six months. Right now, it's just a black stub, barely peeking over my gumline, and I only made the appointment to get it removed after it started hurting a few days ago. Now they have to cut it right out of my stupid skullface because not enough is sticking out to clamp onto. Here's the kicker: I have dental insurance and the money to make up the difference ... but that's just not how I was raised. It's embedded in my head that if it's not hurting, it's fine, pussy.
When I was a kid, you went to the dentist when a tooth broke or a cavity was causing so much pain that it made you throw up. Cleanings weren't even an option. That was something only pretentious assholes did. Braces were tooth jewelry for rich kids. Checkups were for insane, overprotective parents and weirdos with fetishes for people in rubber gloves making them breathe deep and let it out real slow, baby.
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"Yeah, that's it. Now lower. Lower. Loooowwer."
It takes a lot of self-reminding to remember that I have the means to get basic medical care now. Especially since I have children of my own. I can't be passing along the idea that doctors are an emergency-only resource, because they're a vital part of catching illnesses before they get severe enough to be life-threatening or a third arm grows out of our necks. And on a lighter note, it's a huge part of making our lives more comfortable by helping out with everyday ailments. Sounds like a "Yeah, no shit" statement, right? Not for people who grew up in poverty. It's a completely alien idea to many of us.
#4. Your Entertainment Comes in Short Bursts
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When You're Poor ...
I think that when the middle and upper class hear the word "entertainment," they picture things like concerts or vacations. Maybe a night out at a nice restaurant, followed by taking in a play. A weekend on a deserted island, hunting live humans that they abducted from their diamond mines. For the poor, simply having cable TV or renting a movie can be a rare luxury. When I was little, my dad used to take us to the city dump to find things we could recycle for cash. That's not a joke. We'd literally walk down into a giant pit of trash and root through it for hours, and that was considered our "family outing." That reminds me, I should write an article on insanity at some point.
Since entertainment isn't a necessity, it often gets put on the back burner until a windfall check comes in, like a tax refund or finding an antique in the trash pit. It happens in cycles or bursts -- let's take cable TV for an example, since I've already mentioned it. You've had cable before, but you had to let it lapse because you couldn't afford the monthly bills. Since you didn't fulfill the company's contract, you now owe your last bill plus a reconnection fee. No problem. Your tax return will take care of that pretty easily. Three months later, that windfall is gone, and you can no longer afford the service, so you let it lapse again, where it will remain off until your next windfall. Rinse and repeat.
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"Turn the pretend channel. This one pretend sucks."
You end up developing a pecking order for which bills you'll allow to lapse, with entertainment dominating the top spots, followed by "necessary, but not depended upon for survival." For instance, ours was cable, then the Internet, then the phone. Doing it any other way would have meant robbing from our survival to feed our amusement, and there's just no reasonable way to explain to your landlord that you can't pay the rent because you splurged on a box of giraffe-shaped dildos.
Once You Escape ...
You've spent most of your life thinking of entertainment as a frivolous expense. You've gotten used to the pattern of being able to let loose in late February because that's when the money comes. It's an ingrained behavior now. Doing something fun at any other time would be like opening Christmas presents in mid-August. Yeah, you could do it, but it feels kind of wrong and wasteful, like it would cheapen Christmas and ruin the excitement when the actual time rolled around. Plus, the last time you put on a Santa costume was because your spouse had a weird fantasy that left you feeling dirty and confused.
So dark were the months that followed.
The hardest thing to learn when I escaped poverty was that entertainment is not only perfectly fine, but necessary to keep you de-stressed and sane. The idea is so foreign, it would be like a middle-class person trying to convince himself that a submarine is a perfectly logical, necessary vehicle for him to buy. I'm positive that there are some poor people reading this right now and thinking, "Bullshit. When I escape this shithole, I'm saving every last penny I earn so I never have to live through this again." But I'm telling you that when you finally crawl out of it and find your stride in a good career, you have to give yourself some fun time or you'll find yourself standing on your roof with a T-shirt cannon, firing fish at passing cars.
But it takes a really long time before you realize, "Wait, I can totally do fun things now. Why the hell are we still sitting around here? Kids, get showered and put on nice clothes. We're going to the strip club to see your grandma perform!"
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"Gentlemen, welcome to the stage Granny Twerkhammer!"
#3. You Dread the Summer Months
When You're Poor ...
When you're young, summer is initially awesome for pretty obvious reasons. No homework. You can stay up late and sleep in. You don't have to worry about teachers pantsing you in front of your classmates and then laughing at your odd-shaped genitalia. But after a couple of weeks, you notice that everyone close to you is getting agitated, and you don't exactly know why. Is it something you did?
It must be. Parents are quicker tempered, and they seem a lot more stressed out than usual. They're not taking you out to do things like they do during the school year. If you ask to sleep over at a friend's house, they're jumping at the chance to get you the hell out of the house. When you are together, it seems like it's becoming a whole lot easier for arguments to break out or for them to jump your ass for insignificant things like painting the dog's fur green.
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Wait, where are you going? We have a project to complete!
By the time summer winds down, you're totally ready to get back to school, even if you hate it. You just want to get back to your regular routine. Something familiar and less stressful. Fuck summer and everyone who ruined it for you.
Once You Escape ...
It's not until you're older and have kids of your own that you understand the reason for all that lingering stress. When the kids are in school, the parents can sign them up for free or reduced lunches, which relieves a massive financial weight, especially if they have more than one child. During the summer, the food budget can easily double or triple. In my case, it quintupled, because I just have one long meal that starts when I wake up and ends when I black out from a pizza roll-induced coma.
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I have no idea why I was on the highway. Sometimes I eatwalk.
School also acts as a pretty reliable babysitter. During the summer, if the kids aren't of an age where they can stay home alone, the parents have to pay someone to watch them. The catch is that if they're working a low-paying, low-hours job, they can actually lose money by staying employed. This is especially true for single parents. Then you add in the fact that while the kids are home during the summer, all of the bills go up from increased daily use. And God help you if you live in one of the Midwestern or Southern states where the temperatures shoot up to heatstroke levels, because turning on the air conditioning is akin to keeping warm in the winter by setting your paycheck on fire.
Summer is a flat-out financial catastrophe for parents living in poverty, and the whole thing ends up becoming Pavlovian. If you're given an electric shock every time a bell rings, eventually you're going to flinch every hour when those annoying goddamn church bells go off. When you grow up feeling that stress and dread during the summer months, it carries over to your adult life, even when you've gotten past the financial drain.
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"I don't know why I'm crying, Timmy. I just know that you caused it."