Being Poor in America

“Hey, come to the store with me,” my 20-something visitor said brightly.

“You go ahead, I’m working on a project,” I answered.

“No, I need you to come with me,” she said.

Migrant Mother by Dorthea Lange
Migrant Mother by Dorthea Lange

I knew she had been going through a hard time and sometimes we just like to have another human around, so I put down my project and went along. She bought tons of toilet paper and personal hygiene stuff and laundry soap. She was thinking hard.

“Are you planning for an emergency of some kind?” I asked.

“I am losing my job and I’ve been poor before and I remember-you NEED toilet paper and this other stuff,” she said seriously.

She told me about being homeless and how they had taken potatoes from a field and crawfish from a ditch and that’s what they ate for two months.

“Uh…You caught crawfish in a ditch and boiled them? Did they taste good?”

“We had no electricity, of course, so we cooked them on a wood fire and they taste like…well, they taste like food.”

(This was in Florida in 2008)

“Wow, that’s rough-You’re a real survivor, aren’t you?”

“Darn right. But you know…you make vows to yourself. Like, I will never be this poor again. But now my job is ending-the whole place is closing.”

I told her about people I had known who had lived through the Great Depression; how thrifty they were, saving stuff-stuff we toss in the trash.

“Of course,” she said. “You never know when you might need that thing.”

I told her how my Grandma said men would come to the back door and people would hand them a sandwich.

“You see, that’s it why it was a Great Depression: people cared about each other. They didn’t hate poor people, like they do now. I’m glad I was poor; that’s why I have compassion; I know how it feels.”

She got a better job the next day, by the way. She won’t need to buy any toilet paper for about a year, but if I know her, she will give some to her struggling friends if they need it. Because she knows how it feels to be poor.




  1. So maybe all young people should experience poverty-maybe right out of high school-no phones, no credit cards-good luck. Sort of an Initiation into the Human Race thing?

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