“Are you in school?” she probed, stirring her tea as I set a slice of coconut cream pie before her. She’d sent the first piece back, running me ragged with demands I hustled to meet with a smile.
“No, I graduated a few years back.”
She asked from where, and I told her, but her eyes flashed a smirk. “You might not want to tell them you work here. They might revoke your diploma.”
She left a tip that better matched her icy slight than my service–or her pearls.
I served tables and steamed lattes for two years before it became apparent that there might not be A Real Job for me in this town at all. Should we move up our vague baby plans a bit? For what were we waiting anyway, me to brew another thousand pots of coffee?
My sister was visiting. She grabbed glasses from the cupboard, and Jim poured the Guinness.
“None for me.”
“Just a little?” I shook my head, not feeling their festive mood. “But it’s Saint Patrick’s Day!”
“I might be pregnant, OKAY?” I barked, louder than intended. Their jaws dropped in tandem and eyes bugged cartoon-wide. A few beats of shocked silence passed, and they burst wide smiles and congratulatory hugs.
I felt sick, but not with the pregnancy. How were we going to afford this baby? Jim’s ministry job provided housing and a most modest salary. Being broke without kids was one thing; you’re supposed to be poor in your twenties, right? It’s part of the lore of growing up and coming into your own.
But feeding my kids government cheese? That never was part of the plan.
The next day the stick read positive, and the housing authority called about a job I’d applied for months before. If that was proof of God’s sense of humor, it felt like the joke was on me.
I accepted a job with the homeless assistance program, encountering the kind of poverty and housing insecurity that generally flies under the radar. I documented dire straits in pay stubs and eviction notices. The work was good, and I liked the people, but my heart hurt for how hard they labored and what little it guaranteed.
My due date imminent, I couldn’t imagine coming back to work in six short weeks. Staying on part-time wasn’t an option, and we didn’t have anyone to help with childcare, so I gave my notice. We’d figure it out somehow.
As it turned out, government cheese is Helluva Good. We ate it for four and half years, and I really did see it as part of God’s provision for our family. Uncle Sam’s chick peas floated us through the lean seasons, which lasted from autumn until tax time.
Sitting on the other side of the desk to turn over our pay stubs was humbling, like nearly every check-out experience at the grocery store.
“MANAGEMENT TO REGISTER FOUR FOR A PROBLEM WITH A WIC CHECK. PROBLEM WITH A WIC CHECK, REGISTER FOUR.”
I learned to shop the out-of-town supermarket, to not dress Too Nice, and to divide my groceries meticulously, with a babe in the sling and a toddler in the cart.
First check & transaction: milk, juice
Second check & transaction: cereal, peanut butter, cheese, bread
Third/(Fourth) check & transaction(s): produce. Make it match $6 (or less); any overage requires a fourth transaction independent of the final one.
Final transaction: our own groceries. More fruits and veggies, turkey for sandwiches, cheese or possibly fish from deli clearance, pasta, almonds [too much?], ice cream [it's on sale], frozen pizza [I have a coupon]. I smile apologetically at the customers behind me, wondering if they’re frustrated at the length of this process, or is their disdain toward My Kind in general?
I missed my reauthorization last fall and discovered our larder a little fuller. Maybe we could weather this lean season without WIC’s cushion.
My education and growing up were solidly middle class, and in many ways, we’re just wayfarers on this strange (mis)adventure in living beneath the poverty line. We could, most likely, get better paying jobs. Our paychecks are modest, but our housing is secure. Our families could (and have) aided us in a pinch, another decidedly middle class privilege. Downward mobility and ministry were our own choice, and I won’t pretend to exist in the same boat as my former clients, even if our tax returns appear similar.
I’m not so bold. I didn’t write this until I could put it in the past tense. I worried what you’d think, that our finances, spending habits, and private decisions would be up for public review. (That’s how this works, right?)
How much do you think her boots cost?
She has an Instagram account, you know.
If she doesn’t like being “low-income,” she could always, I dunno, WORK.
We’re several months out from receiving WIC benefits and doing okay. More than okay: our needs are met and some wants, too, like signing up our little ones for tumbling at the Y.
Despite all that, we’re still the 47%, those people (like teachers at Christian schools, disabled veterans, and your grandma, for goodness sake) who are basically The Worst for earning wages below the threshold of respectability.
Folks like me. Pleased to make your acquaintance.