Growing Up Poor
I grew up very poor. Saying that feels like ‘coming out’ as poor. It’s a hard thing to admit, and an even harder thing to own. It’s only really been in the past couple of years that I have fully recognised and accepted my identity as ‘working class’, and being ‘from a poor family’. Every time I talk about growing up poor I feel horrendously guilty and ungrateful, as though I am insulting and criticising my parents by acknowledging it—but that’s part of the whole problem.
Poor people seem to always get blamed for being poor, as though it couldn’t possibly have been anything but their own actions which got them there. As though their poorness is solely a personal failure, rather than a failure of the system which makes it near impossible to claw out of poorness, or an accident of birth which brought them into this world outside of the top 1%. FullFact states that “relative poverty generally means that a person can't afford an ‘ordinary living pattern’—they're excluded from the activities and opportunities that the average person enjoys”. In the UK, a household is considered to be in relative poverty if their household income is at 60% or less of the median annual income for the country. There are additional calculations to account for size of household, and number of children and adults, which set the poverty line proportionally. In 2016-17, a household with two parents and two children had a relative poverty line at a combined household income of £21,600. My household consisted of two parents and seven children. We fell within the poorest 10% of households in the UK. You connect the dots.
I have never included my poorness as part of my identity. As a child I never fully understood the weight and power of what it meant beyond only holidaying where we could stay with family for free, having to share bedrooms with multiple siblings (turns out nine people in a four-bedroom house is not a cosy fit), not being able to have the toys and games we wanted, missing out on school trips, no extracurriculars, electricity which would cut out when the meter ran out, and having to buy food on the cheap. Obviously I always knew that we struggled big time with money—I would have had to have been totally and utterly ignorant to not realise that—but my parents were really good at keeping up appearances and not letting us feel it. They militantly corrected our pronunciation—no dropped Ts in our house—to make us appear higher class than we were, and skilfully orchestrated Christmases and birthdays to make us feel like there was nothing we were missing out on. Equally, I could never have known that it was not normal to have to hide and pretend to not be home every Monday evening when the debt collector came round, because we didn’t even have £10 to give them. Chances are if you’ve never been poor—I mean truly poor, not broke or short of cash—you really have no idea how emotionally and physically draining it is to be in a perpetual state of worry over basic financials like food and bills. There are no savings accounts for emergencies. There are no additional funds in case something goes wrong. There is no overdraft left to use or credit left to take out. Sometimes people can’t “just pay their fucking rent” because it’s either rent or food. Or rent or school uniform. Or rent or petrol to drive to work. It’s not a case of “just budgeting better”. It’s not a case of “prioritising”. It’s not a case of “not having more children if you can’t afford them”. It’s a failure of a system which distributes wealth unequally.
‘Poor’—the word carries a certain weight, a certain grit, a certain grime, a certain image. It implies hardship and negativity and a grey world of struggle with no light or joy. Believe me, there were times like that. But my poor childhood also smells like 60p baguettes from Tesco ripped into 9 pieces in the back of the car to feed my six siblings, two parents, and me, sitting in the car park with the windows rolled down, cracking jokes and laughing together as we stuffed thin watery slices of cheap ham into the torn bread to make a lunch because we couldn’t afford to eat out anywhere on our day out to the park. My poor childhood feels like salty sea air licked from my lips as we made the most of a day out on the beach, one of the few options on the rotating roster of ‘Things To Do With Seven Children That Cost Absolutely Nothing’. My poor childhood sounds like triumph and pride as my dad scored big at the bargain section at the supermarket, bringing home £80 worth of nice food (read: not supermarket’s own) for a heroic £7. We would eat for weeks, and be able to buy some electric for the key card. This was a major success.
I have only felt the full weight of my childhood poverty, only fully comprehended the setbacks I have encountered from growing up poor, since entering adulthood. I moved out to go to uni at 18 and have never had the option of moving back home, because there is just no room and no money to move somewhere bigger. I have worked paid jobs continually since age 12. As a university student I worked 25 hours a week alongside my degree to subsidise my student loan, and still came out with credit card debt. There was no additional help to be had. There were no emergency funds or savings pots to dip into. Once you’re in that hole, it is very difficult to climb back out.
I’m in my mid-20s now. All around me I see people doing unpaid internships (a whole separate issue in themselves) and managing to live in London on savings; I see people my age buying houses with deposits partially or wholly gifted from parents, or from savings put away for them as babies, or which they have been able to save for by living rent-free at home; I see my peers wondering why I have never been able to learn to drive, as they freely trash-talk the car their parents bought new for them when they passed their test, still on their parents’ insurance; I see grown 20-somethings who have never paid their own phone bills. I envy every single one of them as I scrape out the dregs of my bank account every month desperately trying to keep up appearances and pretend like I have everything under control. I am desperate to not miss out on enjoying my youth just because of money, but painfully aware that I am quite literally restricted by lack of it. I simultaneously despise the system and the pure chance that has allowed others to have those things, whilst craving it for myself with magpie eyes. I have had no choice but to acknowledge my poor upbringing as a core part of my identity, as a context to the disadvantages I still encounter; I mostly do a good job of hiding it and maintaining the illusion of ‘keeping up’ with my peers, but occasionally the mask slips. The word stings, and I shrink from it. I wish I wasn’t embarrassed by it, but it’s very hard not to be when you see the way poor people are judged. Money has been placed at the centre of our universe, and our entire world system built around it. As a result, the act of not having money makes you stand out as a failure, and makes it incredibly hard to interact with and participate in this money-centric world.
In amongst all of this I fully acknowledge the privilege we had despite our financial situation. We are white; despite our poorness we were able to live in a Housing Association house (albeit a small one) in a safe, rural, semi-affluent area; our parents made sure we never went hungry; our parents were married for my entire childhood (although not the case for my six younger siblings); we have been largely academically successful; we have no significant illnesses or disabilities between us; myself and three of my siblings have been able to go to university. We were incredibly fortunate to do as well as we did within our means, and I am thankful for the joyful childhood I had, crammed with family time and outdoor play and a lot of imagination and resourcefulness.
None of this stops me from wishing we had had better. I wish with my entire being that I could go back and remove the stress and strain of raising seven children on a tiny income from my parents. I didn’t feel our poorness so much as a child, when I knew no different and had no concept of wealth, or its unequal distribution, or the power of money. Now, I worry about how to support my parents when they are old and have no pension or savings, when I can barely support myself. I worry about how to cope if I ever can’t work due to sickness or hospitalisation—in 2015 I went back to work at my very physically-demanding job a mere 9 days after having surgery to remove an organ, because I was getting no sick pay and couldn’t afford to have the time off. I’m almost 25. I count up the cost of my shopping as I go around the supermarket and make a quick last-minute bank balance check on my phone in the queue to make absolutely certain I can cover it. I choose the self-checkouts anyway, just in case my card gets declined (less embarrassing that way).
Money has only ever made me feel powerless and stifled. I tell myself it won’t be forever. I don’t quite believe it.
This piece originally featured in Boshemia Magazine Issue 04: Power.