Lies About Poverty: Once You Make it Out, It’s Over

When you grow up in poverty, there are a lot of things you don’t get that middle class America thinks of as normal. Some are things like vacations. Some are less important when you’re a child, but have a much more lasting impact.

I’ve been talking a lot lately with other friends who lived in poverty for some or all of their lives. We’ve all come to the conclusion that one of the worst things about poverty is how it lingers. Things other people take for granted are not things you are accustomed to.

So let’s talk about some poverty realities that linger well past the time when your bank account looks healthier.

Poor Eating Habits

When you grow up in poverty, two things are usually true about food: there isn’t enough of it and what you have isn’t good for you.

The other day I was talking to friends about a time when I was nine that my stepfather had a long-term layoff from the mine where he worked. It was fall, so my mother bought a huge bag of flour and 100 pounds each of pinto beans and potatoes. I think there may have also been some huge cans of lard or shortening, but I was nine so I don’t remember all the details.

As a kid, I sort of loved fried potatoes and I remember loving that instead of having white bread from the store my mom was baking bread or biscuits every day. And we spent most of that winter living on those commodities. We may have gotten a few other things from food pantries or food stamps, though neither were particularly plentiful in the early 1980s.

Looking at it now, there are so many things wrong with that diet I can’t enumerate them all, but mostly it was high carb and high fat with beans as the only source of protein and almost no vegetables or fruits. Certainly not the type of nutrition that growing children needed.

In 2016, 12.7 percent of Americans, or more than 40 million people including 18 million children lived in poverty. Meals like my mother planned would actually be considered a blessing to many of those people. But the reality is that it taught us horrible lessons about food and led many to be both malnourished and obese.

The lingering problems for childhood food insecurity include everything from chronic health issues to eating disorders. According to the American Heart Association, there is more cardiovascular disease and higher overall death rates among those reporting food insecurity.

The problems don’t disappear as people earn more money and many have lifelong battles with their relationship with food.

Lack of dental care

Many people in poverty have little or no access to dental care. For those who rely on publicly funded medical programs like those available to children in poverty, there is almost never dental care included. If there is, it covers one cleaning a year and emergency fillings. There is no plan for orthodontia or preventative dental care.

The dental care that exists is also usually only with one or two dentists who choose to accept public funds for treatment.

So what does that mean?

In the town where I grew up in central Colorado, there was one dentist who accepted our state health insurance. He was…awful. Because of his horrible treatment, I have a lingering fear bordering on phobia of dentists.

My teeth are a mess, full of mercury-based fillings that I am slowly replacing. Once I got to the point where I could afford dental insurance, I was spending thousands of dollars a year to correct that lack of childhood care. My teeth are not straight and I’ve had to have a couple pulled because those childhood cavities were drilled so deeply.

That phobia I have of dentists? It’s because as a teenager I told the dentist that the drilling was hurting me. He decided a poor kid was just lying or maybe he thought I didn’t really know. He didn’t believe that I need more anesthesia until I bit him.

Bad Money Lessons

When I was 16, my mother rented a new house. But she still owed a gas bill on the last place she had rented so she couldn’t get the utilities turned on until it was paid off.

Since she was poor and had no way to pay it off, her solution was to put the new bill in my name.

My credit was ruined before I ever went to college.

And then when I was about graduate from college, I found that credit card companies like to give college students credit cards. So I got one. I used it to fly to my interview for grad school and a suit to wear to that interview. Then after graduation, I let my Mom use it to buy a couple things for her new house with her promise that she’d pay the bills to get it paid off.

Guess what didn’t happen?

While my Mom helped screw up my credit initially, it was the lessons she taught me about finance that caused the bigger lingering problem. She taught me that when I had cash, it was important to reward myself even if that meant the bills didn’t get paid. She taught me nothing about budgeting or saving.

And because I modeled my behavior on what I had seen growing up, I assumed that I couldn’t buy a new car, but should get a series of clunkers that cost far more than they were worth.

When I finally became not poor, I had to rebuild a destroyed credit rating and unlearn the lessons she taught me.

Now bills get paid the moment they arrive so there is no chance that we won’t have the money for them later and we don’t buy anything on credit because my husband learned equally bad lessons from his parents.

Poverty lingers far after your bank balance is in the black.

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Lucinda Gunnin

Lucinda Gunnin

Lucinda Gunnin is a commercial property manager and author in the suburbs of Philadelphia. She’s a news junky, sushi addict, and geek extraordinaire.