When I was poor, my annual tax refund was spent to rent a safer apartment. Or buy car insurance so I could drive the 30-year-old station wagon that barely ran, but was better than the bus during 120 degree Vegas summers. Or food.
I definitely bought food.
Being poor feels hungry. It’s been fifteen years since I’ve been poor enough to have to legit worry about how I was going to feed myself and my kids, but I still get a sick feeling in my belly when my pantry feels empty.
Being poor comes with a constant sensation of not having quite enough.
And when you have a windfall — a tax return or a side hustle that pays off or some act of kindness that lifts the burden for a minute — it feels like a roller coaster. For a little while, everything is okay. For a few breaths, the hunger is at least at bay. You catch up some and you get a little taste of what it’s like not to feel the unpaid things gnawing at you.
And then you’re poor again. Only now you have an even more acute sense of just how much it sucks.
Being poor feels hungry, and that hunger drives some people. It spurs them to do what it takes to satiate the hunger. They work harder, blindly pursuing what they (think) they need to do in order to never feel that rumbly in their tumbly again.
And sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Even when it does work, though, the echo of that hungry feeling is still there.
Being poor isn’t the same as being broke. Broke is temporary; poverty becomes who you are. It becomes a mindset that is very hard to break out from (even when you aren’t technically poor anymore.)
Poverty is a constant state of insecurity.
Poverty is choosing between food and electricity.
Poverty is staying in dangerous situations, because you’re not sure how you’ll keep a roof over your head otherwise.
Poverty is losing your teeth, because you can’t afford routine care.
Poverty is moving in the middle of the night. From an apartment, when you can’t afford your rent. From a living room, when things get weird.
Poverty is exhaustion, in every way.
Poverty is often hard work that doesn’t lift you up to living wages.
Poverty is a feminist issue.
And, yes, poverty is being hungry.
That hunger doesn’t go away easy. Even when you pull yourself out of poverty — through partnering up (two adults=two incomes=less poor) or work or education or some combination thereof.
Even when everything is okay now and you live in a beautiful house and you can afford to let your kid play club soccer and you have a Costco membership and your gas tank hasn’t been less than half full in years and your pantry is full of dried beans and rice that you never eat but are there just in case.
Even then, when you are definitely not living in poverty anymore, there is a hungry little ball of fear that something will happen to take it away.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the original Ninja Writer.