Fear of Poverty

I’m 15 years old.

I’ve just arrived home after school and I’m standing by the side of the couch staring at my Mom while she sleeps off another late-night shift.

After my step-father went to jail, we became a household without a breadwinner. Things got bad. Well, they were already bad. Things got worse. And, my Mom and older sister (Amber) took jobs at Burger King.

Amber would go to work right after school, work her hours, come home and hand off the keys to the car to my Mom. My Mom would go off to work the late-night shift cleaning the fryers until the early morning, come home exhausted, sleep on the couch during the day and do it again the next night. At some point, my Mom would start working at McDonalds. And, at some point, she would find herself crouched behind a fake fireplace hiding from an armed assailant who was holding the late-night shift at gunpoint.

Poverty puts good people in vulnerable positions.

I have a fear of poverty.

Fear of the repo man taking the car in the middle of the night. Fear of the car breaking down on the side of the highway and having to walk. Fear of dragging the tailpipe down Western Hills Boulevard.  Scrounging for change to pay for gas. Running out of gas on the way to get gas. Hoping that the gas we got will get us where we need to go. Sitting in the back seat and watching the needle with the red highlight hover above the “E” all the way home.

Fear of once-a-month grocery trips. Peanut Butter in a giant plastic container with the oil floating on top. Crowded checkout lines. Coupons. Having to put items back. Having to smile at the checkout person, the bag-boy, and the people waiting in line behind us while waiting for one of us to put things back. Watching the cash that has to last disappear from a pocket envelope emblazoned with a Fifth Third Bank logo.

Fear of bare cupboards. Having to make things stretch. Drinking past-its-due-date milk. Spilt milk (“Don’t cry over spilt milk” is an attitude only the wealthy can afford). Having to ask for food we cannot afford from the up-the-street grocery store. Seeing our family name scribbled on pieces of receipt-paper and posted on the wall behind the register at the up-the-street grocery store telling the neighborhood how much we owe.

Fear of opening my lunch box at school and only finding iceberg lettuce and a spattering of mustard between two slices of Wonder. Oatmeal for dinner. White bread rolled and squeezed into an unbaked breadstick for dinner.

Fear of coming home to a house where the phone, water and/or electricity have been turned off. A ringing phone going unanswered. Answering a ringing phone, saying “Hello” and being called a “deadbeat” by a screaming bill collector. The distant jolting sound of someone slamming the phone’s headset against its housing unit. Cashier’s checks. And, last minute late-night drives to the downtown headquarters of Cincinnati Gas and Electric to slip our last bit of cash into their payment drop box.

Whenever things get to feeling economically insecure (like they are now), I am involuntarily pulled back in time to revisit that moment when I was 15-years-old and staring at my Mom sleeping on the couch. It’s confusing, though. Because, I know I am 15-years-old. However, when I peer back through time, I don’t see a young man who’s gaining muscle mass and sprouting facial hair standing next to the couch.

I see a little boy.

A powerless little boy who’s been thrust into the “man of the house” role.

A powerless little boy unable to take on the task.

I was supposed to provide and protect.

That’s it.

I had two mandates.

And, where I come from, being a man is really quite simple.

Do those two things.

I did not fulfill either of them.

I did not know what to do.

Where to start.

That moment asked me to be a “man”.

I did not answer the call.

I bet my 15-year-old grandpa would have known what to do.

Poverty is a lot of bad things.

Poverty is also emasculating.

I failed once.

I will not fail again.

That’s pretty much the dominant organizing principle of how I financially engage the world.

Here’s the thing.

I am not, have not been, and am not expected to be the only breadwinner in the home that my wife and I have created together. But, I cannot shake these traditional expectations. And, right now, with all the restructuring in the economy at large and higher education in particular, I keep seeing that little boy standing by the side of the couch.  


If you enjoyed this blog, you may enjoy my This is the Work newsletter and/or my Man Manifesto newsletter.

Thanks. – shawn


Photo by Shot by Cerqueira on Unsplash