Monday, March 19, 2018

Post 2--Poverty and Wealth--Childhood

I was probably in ninth grade when Mrs. Carlson decided to do a poll to demonstrate some point about economics. She had a list of items that kids our age or our families would probably own--normal American things, she said. We were to raise our hands if we did NOT own this item.

I sat in the front row and thought: Oh. No.

A tv.

I raised my hand, the only one in the room.

A stereo.

I raised my hand.

A radio.


A musical instrument of any kind.


A baseball and bat.


She listed various sports equipment like a football, cleats, running shoes, and a basketball hoop.

Me, me, me, me.  This was getting awkward for everyone.

A snowmobile.

Up went my hand.

Fishing gear.


A tent.


A 35 mm camera.


A slide projector.

Me of course.

This torturous exercise went on and on.

Mrs. Carlson marched down through that entire lengthy list, and my conscience wouldn't let me lie, so I kept raising my hand every blessed time. Sometimes a scattering of other people did as well, but often I was the only one. Snickers erupted behind me.

Finally Mrs. Carlson laughed and said to me, "You're probably the most contented of us all."

Not in that moment I wasn't, believe me, which might be why it's branded into my memory.

Granted, a few of these items were forbidden by the Beachy-Amish church we were part of, but mostly we didn't own these things because we were so poor.

Our relationship with money and possessions was characterized by worry, pinching, saving, stretching, economizing, waiting, wanting, needing, longing, wishing, mending, making do, hand-me-downs, and acute shame.

Dad was an impractical, dreamy, scholarly Amish farmer, which is as contradictory as it sounds. Money was a nebulous something that drifted in and out of his life. He could never quite grasp it and make it work for him. He was endlessly burdened by debts, haunted by a looming day of reckoning that made him say No to almost anything we wanted to do or get or see.

So we learned not to ask.

Mom was a miracle worker with her gardening and sewing and about fifty other skills that kept us fed and clothed and clean.

But she worried endlessly and carried heavy burdens. She never said this out loud, but now I realize that she could have handled the finances much better than Dad, being of a practical and enterprising nature. But that would have destroyed Dad's last shreds of dignity.

Mom occasionally conjured a sense of abundance, such as when she hauled us all to the back 40 to pick blackberries or secretly sewed warm, ruffled pink flannel nightgowns for our Christmas gifts.

But most of the time we felt impoverished.

After I went to a public school in the fifth grade, we would get a paper at the beginning of the year with a chart listing family sizes, income levels, and who qualified for free lunches. The amount at which a family of our size would get free lunches was far more than we ever made. But we never utilized this benefit. Handouts from the Government were unthinkable.

We either made things ourselves or bought them secondhand. Mostly, we did without. We didn't buy new clothes or ready-made food. We never went out to eat. A box of 64 crayons was something to envy and long for, knowing we could never afford it. Something as fun and cool as a banana-seat bike, which was the ultimate fun and cool thing in its day, was as out of reach as Mars.

But, for some reason, it was important to Dad that we regularly went to the dentist. So I got a mouthful of fillings, which I have reason to believe I didn't always need, while at the same time we "couldn't afford" adequate gear in Minnesota winters, such as the tiny little lightweight chore gloves I wore to school in subzero temperatures.

My sister Margaret remembers having cold feet all winter because her boots had holes and the snow got in. She never had decent warm socks. It wasn't only because we couldn't afford new ones. It was also because no one noticed or cared, and she knew she shouldn't ask. We were going through a horrifically stressful time as a family, and Mom and Dad were preoccupied with just trying to survive the financial struggles and mental illnesses and chaos and conflict.

So we had a poverty of nurturing and attention as well, which fed us those crippling "truths" that we were on our own, no one was going to look out for us, these things could not be said out loud, and the good things in life were for everyone out there, but not for us.

Except, of course, we got our teeth checked twice a year, without fail. 

Poverty and wealth are strange things to quantify and evaluate, they go far deeper and wider than mere income levels and family sizes on a mimeographed chart, and they are far more nuanced than the overall patterns of education, jobs, and costs of living. Parents' relationship with finances affects their children's view of the world and themselves in a dozen odd and seemingly unconnected ways.

What's really strange is that by one key metric, we ought to have been better off than anyone else at church and most people in the community.

Come back tomorrow for that.


  1. Thank you for writing about poverty. Like so many others, my parents' struggle with bills made them too preoccupied for things like affection and encouragement. It's so easy and so hard to forgive, all at once. Anyway it makes a person want to help alleviate poverty! Or at least avoid it oneself.

    1. Parents being too preoccupied with trying to survive to notice or care; that is the note that hurts most in this post.

  2. The teacher in me just can't handle school stories like this. What was she thinking? Even if she didn't know her class well enough to know ahead of time how this would go, she didn't need to finish!

    1. i was thinking the same thing.

    2. Obviously it was an unexpected outcome of her little poll but she could have just quit early!

    3. Yes, she should have quit or had enough foresight not to start.

      We attended our church school to 8th grade and then transferred to the public school. Were you the only one? There were so many of us that at one point in time there were up to 15 of us getting on at our rural bus stop what with all the cousins from our cojoined farms. There is definitely safety in numbers. I never remember being seriously picked on by students or teachers.

    4. Athanasia--Up through 9th grade, there were 3 of us in high school. Then one guy dropped out and it was only my sister and me. My senior year, I was the only one.

  3. "Parents' relationship with finances affects their children's view of the world and themselves in a dozen odd and seemingly unconnected ways." This sums it up perfectly.

  4. "Parents' relationship with finances affects their children's view of the world and themselves in a dozen odd and seemingly unconnected ways." This sums it up so well. I hope you expand on this thought in later posts.

  5. It would be interesting to discover how poverty affects individuals in the same family--personality, birth order, gender, cultural changes in a specific time period... I've been reading all your posts about poverty/etc and finding it very interesting. Thanks! Sue R.

  6. The stories of poverty and lack of community I could tell you would blow your hair back. I think they add social support systems to some poverty calculators now days. Unfortunately, these people are everywhere. I was blessed to live in the inner city and begin working toward teaching others how to live in an interdependent community—a step toward your thoughts here on these waiters. Fantastic idea. Because I tried it but got a bit stalled, when we hit the reality of 7 people and 3 families, 4 adults were so severely abused as children, one decided not to have kids. Another had kids and in front of the group/community she displayed exemplary parenting skills but I could never figure out why her son never improved his constant fighting and cruelty until I listened through a thin wall and realized she was horribly abusing her children. Then there was the neighbor who rented rooms in her house to pass through uncles so they could survive and all the uncles sexually abused the 8 yr old daughter and now she is 25 and can’t control her anger and is bipolar. Mostly, I take care of my own kids or $1000/month/child in a daycare is much cheaper than a damaged child. If the community is too broken to provide acceptable childcare, than money can buy it and the law can prosecute those who abuse children and surveillance cameras will either catch them or deter them. Once I picked up my children from someone who had been giving them wine to drink. Another babysitter made them eat poop. Pooling resources sometimes means inviting other people’s most fantastic disasters into your bosom. So, it has to be done very carefully and this is not without impact in the conservative communities. Some report that sexual abuse is even higher in Amish and Mennonite communities because it is not reported, even the Schnupps talk about this.
    Side note: I recently read an article about the Rajneesh in Antelope Oregon. They built a fantastic self-sufficient, lucrative community, despite their rather strange, other beliefs.
    Stumbled upon your blog again: enjoy your perspective. Otherwise never mind my rambling thoughts.