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From middle class to poverty in one hard lesson


The author, who lives in Ventura County, Calif., requested anonymity in order to spare her family further humiliation.

THE YEAR just ended was the year my children did not go to the circus, or the museum, or the movies, or McDonald's. The year their only "new" clothes came from charity. The year my toddler cried from hunger all day because he was tired of the only food I could offer: oatmeal. The year I asked my church on four occasions to give meals to my children. This was the year I lost 25 pounds without even trying.

I was born and brought up in the middle class in Southern California. In 1989, I went on long-term disability leave from my job as an in-house business writer. In 1990, my husband's business failed. For three years we have lived below -- way below -- the poverty line. We've been luckier than many people; it has taken us a while to hit bottom. We had savings, credit, possessions to sell, relatives and friends to borrow from. But here we are, an inch away from foreclosure, no insurance, browbeaten by collection agents. They say we are deadbeats; we feel like deadbeats.

The anger hit first when I saw a Garfield toy stuck on a windshield. I figured it cost $12 or $15, and in a wave of emotion I calculated exactly what groceries I would buy if I had that $12 or $15. Peanut butter. We'd done without for three weeks, and my kids missed it. A big chicken. I could make that last for more than a week. Apple juice, which my toddler loves but was doing without. Potatoes, the 5-pound bag, and broccoli. I visualized the Sunday dinner we could have: chicken, potatoes, broccoli, biscuits, gravy, maybe even a cake. I pictured my kids, who are somewhat resigned to strange combinations of vegetables and rice or noodles, enjoying this lovely dinner. I was suddenly furious at someone I didn't even know for spending so much money on a joke.

Then I got mad that it seemed like so much money. Then I got mad that I was mad.

Anger drove me to notice how many people in Southern California own cars so expensive and flashy that they may as well have a sign in the window that reads, "I've got lots of money and you don't, sucker." I began to notice how many homes are designed to make the same announcement.

In my whole life I've bought only one car (a compact) and one home (a modest condominium), so I've never been a member of the Flaunt Your Money group, but I've never minded them much, either. Suddenly, I began to take their arrogance very, very personally. When I read an article in the Los Angeles Times about people who spend $20,000 for a wristwatch -- a wristwatch -- I scrutinized their photos. Were these people part of the human race? To spend so much money that way, when children living a few miles away are hungry . . . I simply could not get my mind around it. I began to understand why my grandmother, who had raised her children in the Depression, voted Socialist for the rest of her life.

Then, things got so much worse that there was no more room for anger.

My dominant feeling became one of numb amazement as I was forced by circumstances to see that without money, a person simply doesn't matter.

"Welcome to the real world," said my husband, who did not grow up in the middle class.

So shoot me. Raised in the sheltered suburbs, well-educated and insulated, I'd been operating on the assumption that people have value, whether or not they have money. I've learned otherwise.

I have learned that the bank will foreclose on your house if you miss three payments. They will sell it for the value of the mortgage, and, as I have been told by my bank, you and your family will simply have to find some other place to live. Like maybe a cardboard box.

I've learned that to file bankruptcy to keep your creditors from taking your house and car, you must first fork over $800 for the filing and attorney fees.

I've learned that when you're uninsured, a doctor visit is $50, to be paid on the spot, and a prescription for antibiotics can be $20 or $30. To a middle-class person, that isn't much money; to me, it's impossible.

I thought I was well-informed, but I was not at all prepared for the violent, demoralizing effect of poverty. I had no idea how it would feel to have no food in the house, no gas to drive to buy food, no money to buy gas and no prospect of money. How it would feel not to matter to the larger world, and to know that my smart, funny children also do not matter.

My husband and I believe we'll pull out of this. So far, though, the piecemeal work we find pays poorly, and we could paper the walls with form letters telling us either that we didn't get the job or that legal action will commence if we don't pay some debt or other. I have a dread in my bones that the worst is not yet over, and that when it finally is over, it will never be altogether in the past for any one of us.

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