Four Things That Shape Your Life When You Grow Up Under the Poverty Line
Explaining some of the lessons and lasting effects that are carried into adulthood by children of poverty
My small, industrial-based hometown of around 6,500 people in Northwest Pennsylvania is a town that is no stranger to poverty. Of those roughly 6,500 people, almost 25% are considered to be below the poverty line. That’s more than double the national average, and it’s really no surprise given how automation and global outsourcing have reduced the need for small-town factories.
Growing up as the daughter of a single father who was a factory worker, I was definitely part of that statistic. Here’s my takeaway from that, and how it shaped my life going into adulthood.
1. Modern technology, although a necessary means for accomplishing many things, is still considered a luxury that is out of reach for many.
Scary thought after the last two years, isn’t it? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, from 2015–2019 only around 82% of households in my hometown owned a computer, and only around 75% had an active broadband subscription.
I know you can probably do the math on that one, but the number of people without internet shapes up to almost perfectly match the number of people below the poverty line.
Growing up as a millennial, technology shifted from merely advancing to full-throttle warp speed in my teen years. However, I didn’t own a cell phone until age 16. We had the same old, clunky, white desktop computer with the big, heavy tube monitor my grandmother had purchased in the year 1998 until she maxed out her credit line with Dell in 2007 to purchase a new one. Broadband internet came much later for us as well.
2. Food insecurity shapes your ability to learn about and receive proper daily nutrition.
This one might seem like a no-brainer, kids growing up poor don’t usually have a lot of food in their homes. Makes sense, right? Right. What usually doesn’t occur to people who have never experienced food insecurity is just how much it affects your ability to learn about how to eat a balanced diet as well.
Physical education teachers can beat the food pyramid or any of its modern evolutions into your head all day long as a kid. If you’re not able to go home and realistically put it into practice, it carries little benefit.
As children, our eating habits are majorly shaped by what foods are brought into the home by our parents, and obviously what they bring home is what they can afford to. I also think it’s no secret that in the U.S. especially, cheap food is not always (or even usually) healthy food.
There is also no shortage of food deserts, which are defined as geographical areas that are severely lacking in healthy, affordable, fresh food options that are accessible to residents of that area.
All of these factors combined result in more people eating cheap foods that are usually filled with excess calories, fat, preservatives, and sodium. When you’re impoverished and experiencing food insecurity, you eat whatever foods you can get your hands on.
Sometimes that means whatever you can find at a convenience store with your last two dollars.
3. Clean clothes are also a luxury that can be just out of reach.
If you grew up above the poverty line, there is a good chance that your family owned a washer and dryer. Hell, even if you were below the poverty line and lucky, you might have had one. Many people living in poverty also live in homes and apartments, including subsidized ones, that don’t have washer/dryer hookups. So even if you could afford to purchase a set, you would have no way to use it.
Going back to the U.S. Census again, only 55% of residential units in my hometown from 2015–2019 were owner-occupied. Meaning that 45% of the units that were likely rentals may or may not have had washer/dryer hookups, and anyone who has ever rented a home or apartment knows that decision is not generally one left up to the renter.
Your only options left at that point are to wash at someone’s house who is kind enough to offer or to pack up your laundry and lug it all to the coin-operated laundromat, once or twice a month. If you can afford such a trip, that is. Trips to my local laundromat typically cost between $20–30, and sometimes that expense was the difference between eating and not eating that week.
4. Cash is king, and you understand when your parents don’t have it.
Pick any one of the prior three topics in this article and you’ll find something that childhood bullies deem worthy of their teasing and cruel jokes. No child asks to be born under the poverty line, just like no child asks to be born above it. It just…is.
Although you might be grateful for your hard-working parents or whoever is responsible for your care as a child, your hand-me-down clothes and shoes that are falling apart to the point that they’re practically talking make you an easy target for bullies.
You look around at your peers and notice them in nicer clothes and shoes, with trendy haircuts and a nice ride to hop into after school (or at least one not held together by Bondo) and you wonder, why not me?
What also may not occur to those who haven’t had to think about it is that it’s not only food at home and cleanliness that are affected by childhood poverty. It’s not being able to give your teacher that $20 for the field trip. It’s not being able to afford equipment for extracurricular activities. It’s trying to hide the fact that you didn’t have to pay for your lunch. All of these things had a great effect on my self-esteem as a child and definitely shaped my thoughts and opinions on socioeconomics as an adult.
If you are someone who grew up in poverty, I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject. What areas of your life as a child were affected by living below the poverty line? How did that shape your experiences as an adult? I feel like I could go on for days about this personally, but for the sake of the article I trimmed it down to just these four particular things.
Please feel free to let me know your thoughts and feelings, but please keep it on-topic and respectful.