Math For Poor People And The Unbearable Shame Of Saying No To Your Child
When you’re poor, you get good at math really fast.
I was a single mom with more bills than money. The days before payday presented a never-ending series of math problems. For example: if I filled my car with gas, my son wouldn’t have enough lunch money for the week. This might seem like an easy choice, but I needed the gas to get to work. If I didn’t go to work, I’d lose my job. If I lost my job we wouldn’t have money for anything, let alone school lunches. The math said the gas came first.
Through constant calculations, I made sure my son didn’t go hungry, cobbling together enough food to send him to school with a sack lunch. My specialty in tight circumstances was peanut butter sandwiches with hot dog buns instead of bread. Hot dog buns were cheaper and nearly always available at the end of the bakery counter where they kept the day-old markdowns. This was the kind of math I was good at. The kind of math where you save yourself fifty cents because then you’ll have fifty more cents to spend on something else. The kind of math that fills your stomach.
Being good at math also meant a lot of saying no. To a certain extent, this could be classified as good parenting: Saying no to one’s children teaches them valuable life lessons, such as patience, respect, and the value of hard work. But being forced to say no when your child deserves a yes, even needs a yes, is a different matter entirely. A responsible parent tells their child they can’t fill the grocery cart with cookies and candy, but there’s a special kind of shame that comes from telling your son there isn’t enough money to buy milk and he’ll have to drink water instead. It was part of my daily existence. I breathed it in and out like air.
I said no to grapes and cantaloupe because we still had cans of fruit cocktail from the food bank. I said no to hamburger because there was a whole chicken in our cart and I was determined to make six meals with it. I said no to name brand cereal and ice cream; I also said no to broccoli because carrots were cheaper.
As I rolled the cart up and down the aisles of the grocery store, I played a game of “if only.” If only I’d taken that quarter of community college more seriously, I might have a better-paying job, instead of answering phones for little more than minimum wage. If only I’d taken a different route home from work last week I wouldn’t have punctured my tire and needed to waste money on a new one. If only I hadn’t bought a cup of coffee on Tuesday, I’d have two more dollars for groceries today. If only, if only, if only. The game goes on forever if you let it. My poor decisions were proof of my never-ending inadequacy. I could trace them back as far as elementary school, where I’d failed to develop good habits by turning in my homework on time.
One of the things few people but the poor understand is that, when you’re poor, life conspires to keep you that way. My old car constantly racked up mechanic’s fees, requiring first a new radiator, then water pump, then alternator and spark plugs. I desperately wanted a newer, more reliable model, but I didn’t make enough money to qualify for a loan. I juggled bills, which led to late penalties. I had to sign up for a high-interest payday loan at a local strip mall because my son needed new clothes after a two inch growth spurt. Every day I felt I was falling deeper into a hole, and the worst part was feeling I was taking my son down with me. His father was out of the picture, and he had no one else to grab onto.
Work was the only way out. I endeavored to make myself indispensable to any company that would hire me. I volunteered for extra projects, said yes to everything and didn’t call in sick unless I had a fever. Afterward, I’d pick my son up from after-school care and tell him all about my day. We celebrated together when, after a year at the same company, I got a dollar-an-hour raise. I listed off all the things we’d be able to buy with that money, so he’d understand the value of working hard. I’d be able to say yes to more groceries. Yes to a night at the movies, once in a while, and yes to the book order forms he brought home from school.
I eventually found my way into a career in sales, selling everything from life insurance to degree programs at for-profit universities to flooring. These jobs were either all or partially dependent on commission, which meant working hard translated to bigger paychecks. I never got rich, but I earned just enough money to do a little less math at the grocery store. I was proud to be able to buy my son all the milk and hamburger he wanted and even treat us to dinner in a restaurant now and then. Everything tasted so much sweeter because we knew how lucky we were to indulge in such luxuries.
When you experience poverty, you see the world a little differently. You feel a kinship with the people living on the street because you know they, like you, have value. You understand that they could have been you: we’re all only so many steps from homelessness — it’s just that some of us are a few steps further away than others. As much as I wish I could have given my son an easier childhood, I’m glad he had a chance to learn these things. I’m especially glad he learned the importance of paying it forward, because we have been the recipients of so many kindnesses ourselves. There was the young man who changed our tire when we were stuck on the side of the road and the elderly gentleman who pitched in when we were two dollars short for groceries. There were the family members who sent us home with the leftovers from Christmas dinner and strangers who gave us their extra leftover ride tickets at the fair.
These acts of generosity nearly always came in the moments when the math was pressing upon us the most: when no matter how much I moved the numbers around, I couldn’t make them balance. They taught me and my son to move through life with more awareness — to look for the person who might need help with bus fare, or would be grateful for a bottle of water or hot cup of coffee, and subtract from their burdens if we can. We learned to move through life looking for people like us. We know that people like us look like everybody.
This essay originally appeared in The Washington Post