Now we know: no one chose this trauma. It happened. It happened to all of us. Like suddenly there’s a worldwide pandemic and we don’t have enough food or we can’t get a medical test we need, or we are laid off.
Trauma can cause you to not be able to do anything unless you first feel safe. Never feeling safe is exhausting, as you may now know on a deeper level.
Many people in poverty, in dangerous neighborhoods, have felt this way every day all day long for your whole lifetime.
Living with a lot of people in the house means it’s hard to get things done. Cats wander in. Kids cry. The kettle boils.
People in poverty are more likely to live with extended family, or friends. In my experience, the less money people have, the more generous they are, particularly about sharing food and sharing space.
It’s hard to get things done when younger kids are crawling all over you, or people are cooking, watching TV, talking, in every space available in your house.
Like, say, your homework. It’s hard to focus on abstract work when there’s activity and unpredictability all around. Even kids who have access to great technology are struggling now. Kids without technology, or a space quiet enough to work in, don’t even get to try.
People who live with you must be cared for. Some of those people in those places bursting at the seams are likely to be elderly, ill (physically or mentally), or suffering from some serious PTSD from the jump. In Kansas, people who are black can expect to live 6 years less than their white neighbors (Census data, Kansas Center for Health and Environmental Statistics). Many people maintain differences in health outcomes are somehow not about systemic racism, but about people who are black being somehow different from other humans, in their abilities, or strength, or values.
Such thoughts are racist thoughts.
Many times kids in poverty are enlisted to help care for household members. I think that’s a good thing in many ways, but obviously too big a burden can take away time and energy that you need for other things. It can also cause kids to act really immature and wild at school, because at home they have adults responsibilities.
Now you may know (if you haven’t thought about it lately): if you don’t have it, you don’t have it. There are people who rarely go without. In this time, we have experienced having continuing desires to go places and buy things and have things, and there has been no way to satisfy these cravings.
If you are in poverty, you may be dealing with such cravings and yearnings 24/7.
Trauma makes it hard to remember. If I struggled before the pandemic to remember why I went into the kitchen, during the pandemic I have struggled to figure out, what did I do yesterday? Or the day before? And shoot I am in the kitchen, why?
All the memory work involved in schoolwork (of which there is, and must be, plenty, from sight words to medical terms) is significantly more difficult for people in trauma.
They often have other strengths, strengths of empathy and grace under pressure and loyalty and love. But they may need more time, and work, and smarter work, to retain information they need.
In times of trauma, you have to prioritize and let a lot of things go. Everyone who stopped wearing real pants now understands more about why when you’re struggling, you might let things go. You might look a little scruffy. We all do, right now.
More of us may now understand that if you don’t pay your rent, it isn’t necessarily because you are lazy or foolish. We are all at the mercy of our employers, our customers, or the amoral economic system. And the employers of people in poverty are often ruthless in their strategies to keep people poor, by giving them inconsistent work, work that isn’t quite full time, work without benefits.
The American government may step up and give money to the middle class. Americans who are struggling more are required to prove that they “need” help, to prove they are working hard enough to help themselves, and help will be limited to short periods of time.
The Kansas government, for example, will give people in poverty money 24 months over the course of your entire life (don’t have multiple crises!). A single mother of two in Kansas can make no more than $10 grand a year, or she loses help from the government. Raise your hand if you can live on $11,000 a year with two kids. (In rural areas, where there is little economic activity, work requirements are particularly draconian.)
Middle class people won’t be told they should have saved for a rainy day like a pandemic. Or asked to fill out a million forms. Nope. When middle class people are part of the crisis, the government deposits $1200 in their bank accounts. No one asks if they will spend it wisely, or if they can be trusted with money.
Have you applied for a small business loan or unemployment lately? You may now know that getting help from a government bureaucracy is difficult.
The systems don’t work right. There are hoops to jump through that don’t make sense. There are requirements for paperwork that you just don’t have. You have to show up in person, hoping that your time away from work or your kids or your granny will be short enough that no catastrophe ensues.
What we don’t have at this time is the additional difficulty of transportation to places where you can get help. In most cities, that is a huge barrier.
Kansas requires its WIC participants to get education about nutrition and cooking, as if not knowing how to eat healthfully results in a lack of funds. Or as punishment for the help other Kansans are offering you: hey, we will help, but you gotta be told how to spend your money wisely. Getting to classes on nutrition, when you have a job that has no consistent hours, and a child, is a big ask.
You may have learned some of this. You may have known all of this, but now you know it in your body.
I wonder if people who lived through the Great Depression knew this. I think many of them did.
Please don’t forget it. It needs to be said, people who don’t have money and resources are still people.
People who work in slaughterhouses and meat processing are also people, and their lives and their health is sacred. Homeless people are people. People in New York City are people. They are not worth less than people with money.
It feels weird to have to say this. But I’ve seen a mayor of a large American city saying, “We’ll be the experiment, let us start spreading the virus, and the people who die, die.”
Luck doesn’t make you more of a person. Working more or harder doesn’t make you more of a person. Having a degree, or a job with a fancy title, or having a job at all, none of this makes you more worthy. Being sick, with physical or mental illness, with addiction, with trauma, doesn’t make you less of a person.
A lot of major world religions, in fact, would say those experiences can make you more of a person.
So please, don’t forget when it’s time to vote.
Don’t forget when people around you say, “If those people were more responsible/went for more walks/ate less government cheese….”
Don’t forget when people complain that kids in poverty do poorly in school because they have bad teachers and bad parents.
When politicians pour money into subsidizing highways and oil, but not into busses.
Don’t forget when politicians say we can’t afford health care for everyone, or addiction treatment for everyone, or other kinds of mental health care.
Don’t forget when politicians tell you there isn’t enough money to help your fellow citizens. When your people are in trouble, you get them help.
Who am I to talk about this stuff? I’ve worked most of my career (almost twenty years) with people in poverty, mostly as a high school English teacher. I’m currently studying issues of race and education.
Image: “Angel Applicant,” Paul Klee, 1939, Metropolitan Museum of Art.