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Writing Out of Poverty. Literally.

Lately I’ve been writing a lot about how it feels to live in poverty. I’ve been published or featured seven times in the last week. I’m waiting on three more to go through edits, and another two to go live. On Tuesday, I’ll stand on a stage in front of a class at the college where I just graduated and give a talk about freelancing. I took that class two years ago.
DSCN1960But that’s not even the biggest full-circle moment. I’m working my way out of poverty by writing about my experiences in it. By opening myself up and taking a risk of admitting to others (namely internet trolls) that I’m still struggling enough to qualify for government assistance, I am getting to a place where I don’t need it anymore.
My first piece through the Economic Hardship Reporting Project was published yesterday. It’s the first time I’ve ever published something that said the words “I’m on food stamps.” Yesterday I wanted to curl onto my knees and heave sobs because of those four words appearing on a website. It was admitting how hard this has been while knowing the journey is almost over.
The piece was about the stigma involved in being on government assistance, or welfare, as most incorrectly call it. It’s about being compared to a wild animal receiving handouts on social media. It’s about feeling that judgment and hatred every time I pay for groceries, or even select items off the shelf.
I can honestly say I’ve never felt encouraged to get a college education as a single mother. I especially didn’t feel encouraged to pursue writing. I felt encouraged to work. I felt like I needed to work as many hours as I possibly could, no matter how low the pay, to get ahead. This is an idiotic system. Why wouldn’t low-income people be encouraged to educate themselves to earn higher wages? Not only was I going to school, though, I was taking out the maximum amount of student loans to pay for our meager fixed expenses like rent, insurance, internet, gas, phone, and utilities. I worked my way through college, and received grants and scholarships, but still ended at $50,000 in debt. Graduating meant failing my family at a chance to own a house.
DSCN1965Without the degree, though, I don’t think I would have stopped cleaning houses. I don’t think I would have thought myself on the same level as the people whose houses I cleaned. I don’t think I would have set my sights on top of the mountain, instead of being okay with remaining in the comfort of the trailhead at a job that required little skill or brain-power. Not thinking, not going to school, only working, was easy.
In a sense, I still feel the pull to get a regular job. I’ve written about this before. I think it’s only because writing is such a hobby to me and I feel like I’m not truly working. What is work, anyway? To a low-income person, it means being on your feet, asking people if you can get them anything, and performing customer service in the most direct way possible. Even if you’re working behind the scenes as a janitor, you still have customers to please.
But we’re all working in customer service. We’re all freelancers. Nobody (hopefully) forces us to work and we can leave anytime. And somebody, somewhere, appreciates the work we do, even if they don’t notice it.
I’m sitting in a café right now. I have a store-bought coffee sitting next to my laptop. I’m waiting for emails from editors, sending off essays, and fielding comments on my social media platforms. Last night I stayed up until 2 in order to meet a deadline. The work is constant, a mad dash, and a delicious hustle.
I just found out The Guardian’s running my op-ed tomorrow.
I think I deserve the night off.

15 replies
  1. debbiedeywrites
    debbiedeywrites says:

    While you may not feel like it, you’re an inspiration for all the freelancers who don’t feel their worth. You’re an inspiration for those that are afraid to show their vulnerability. And an inspiration for those who have forgotten that they are in control of their own lives. Good for you! Congratulations for finding the strength and courage to put one foot in front of the other and make a difference. Your child is so lucky to have such an amazing role model! 🙂

    • step.
      step. says:

      Thank you so very much for those kind words, Debbie. It’s been a raw sense of opening and making myself vulnerable over the last few weeks especially. And yes, we are in control of our lives!

  2. Hayde8604
    Hayde8604 says:

    Thank you for this real piece about what it’s like to be in a system that doesn’t work for its people. I’m writing to you as a stay-at-home mom to two kids, wondering what I’ll do to bring income to my household while still caring for my children. I’m also writing as a woman who’s been in the shoes of a single working mom, and knows how hard it is to fill both those shoes with grace (I often failed to fill both those shoes with grace). I was on food stamps and had a childcare subsidy while working 40 hours a week as a single mother, and I struggled a lot, still. I take great offense at the idea that people who receive food stamps aren’t hard workers. The problem is that they work for such meager wages that receiving food stamps is a little band-aid to a bigger wound.
    I’m hoping to monetize my blogging sometime, but not sure how to do this, but you’ve given me some hope that writing is not just a hobby. Thank you.
    I wish you all the best. Good luck to you, in all things.

    • step.
      step. says:

      That is an excellent way to describe government assistance: a little band-aid to a bigger wound.
      I haven’t figured out how to monetize my blog. Best of luck and keep writing!

  3. Genbumom
    Genbumom says:

    Your education is more important than any home ownership (which has it’s own burdens financially). You are showing your children what it means to be brave by writing articles like this one. I dream of the day when middle class isn’t a glossy term for ‘one car repair away from poverty’ or asking to borrow money from family. We often remark in our household, how do we make $xx amount per year, both have college degrees yet an entire paychecks goes to just paying for daycare. My husband’s job shifted and he is making less than before. We had to call the state to see if our child’s allergy qualified us for financial assistance. A) we had to call his allergy a disability, which was hard for me B) We didn’t even remotely meet the minimum qualifications to apply. How then can we not save for our children’s college fund? Why do we put off paying bills? Why am I wearing the same bra that I’ve had since 2013? We do our best, we buy when on sale, or we don’t buy at all. We go to the park and library. We make homemade products. We are truly blessed and we are happy, but when we really think of our financial future, we become scared. To persist is to live.

    • step.
      step. says:

      I’ve thought a lot about the leap of going off government assistance into the world of not qualifying for any assistance. You get a $200 pay raise and lose hundreds in help. To earn or work more is to go in the red. I have a lot of hope for the next presidential election and hope things will change so the gap isn’t those who are comfortable and those who fear car repairs. Thank you for sharing your story. That’s been the best part of this blog is hearing the stories of others.

  4. Genbumom
    Genbumom says:

    I do also have a lot of hope. I had the unfortunate (or maybe it was a good thing) conversation occur the other day, when ironically enough, working on a community service project building a playground in an inner city area (through my work). A coworker for some reason started rattling off how a $15 minimum wage would disrupt our economy and put money into the hands of ‘unskilled workers’ and he made a comment about Mcdonalds and how employees there cannot take an order correctly. I really had to stifle some anger. My husband who has an Associates degree in computer networking is one of those people who work at jobs that are for ‘unskilled’ people (he works in collections amongst others who mostly don’t have degrees- not that a degree is a deciding factor in intelligence or anything but technically, from what society tells us, a degree is supposed to help us land at least an entry level job in our field). I digress… I explained to him that a paycut that affected us just this week at his job has put him under $15 an hour. I explained to him that $15/hr would help our family be able to pay our bills. Was it hard to admit that we struggle, yes, especially to someone that in sales makes a ton more money than we do (I’m a trainer at my work but I still do not get paid industry standard for what I do- sometimes I wonder why I stay at the company). It really upset me what he was saying and I tried to respond with as much candor and patience as I could, but it was SO difficult not to get upset. It was obviously coming from some underlying political beliefs and his blanket statements were just out of line. I’m still trying to figure out if the conversation did anything to change his mind or not. That and he made some comments about how the kids had never obviously been in the country before as they covered their nose from the smell of the mulch we were laying. That in itself was an odd statement to make. Not everyone has the same opportunities and here is someone very priveledges essentially making statements about kids who don’t get the option to travel out of the city. That is not the kids choice and their parents are the ones struggle to pay their bills- they don’t get to take their kids to “horse riding lessons” like this man gets to do
    . Shame on him is all I can say. I wish I had the ‘perfect’ response to make him understand. Or maybe some people will just never understand.

  5. Genbumom
    Genbumom says:

    I would also say, do what you need to do. If you need assistance, stay on it. We are here to help others, this is what our tax dollars are supposed to be doing. I myself was on food stamps after college for a time and I appreciate every penny I got to spend in order to feed myself. I didn’t even have mouths to feed. Be proud of doing what you need to do to survive. You may even look back at these times later as the best in your life. You never know.

    • step.
      step. says:

      Thank you for that. Really. I feel such shame over it sometimes. And I do often look back on the time Mia and I spent in a homeless shelter when she was just 10 months old as so sweet and pure. We had nothing and it felt so simple and organic. Thank you for your comments.

  6. osendeleon
    osendeleon says:

    Your story and its truth is more powerful than you will ever know. You are positioning yourself in a place of influence because you have overcome! Applause you the best is yet to come!

  7. Rachel E. Bledsoe
    Rachel E. Bledsoe says:

    I want to express my ultimate gratitude in writing these words and addressing the topic, openly & honestly. We are the “working poor.” One check away from losing everything, every month. Three college degrees hang on our wall. I stopped waiting tables after I enrolled in graduate college. But I never lost gained a true financial foothold. And I write to survive, each month. Thank you, bottom of my heart, thank you.

  8. RK
    RK says:

    From another single mom, you have nothing to be ashamed of. You are an inspiration! Life’s journey is so complicated, no one can judge another person’s decisions nor circumstances. I put aside my education & life to help my husbands career (moving often, including internationally). At the age of 40, I was forced to rebuild my life and support my child. I am so thankful you have shared your experiences….this helps all of us out there to not feel so alone.

  9. apieceofhim
    apieceofhim says:

    You are strong, and your story is that of power. You chose what you had to do, and you are doing it brilliantly well. Systems do not always favor us. It’s strong people like you who can set the system aside and do wonderful things. Keep writing. Keep inspiring.

  10. Nick Chin
    Nick Chin says:

    This was just an outright inspirational article. Having been faced with the same stigma of needing “welfare” in the past, I can relate to what you say regarding this. Thanks for such a wonderful read!

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