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Growing Up in Poverty Means Growing Up in Shame

June 28, 2019

Parenting in Poverty”, a NYTimes article by Bobbi Dempsey that appeared last week, poignantly describes what it feels like to be a child whose parents rely on food stamps and how frustrating it is to operate as a parent under the guidelines set forth for EBT cards. Ms. Dempsey writes about the feelings she experienced as a child:

I am far too familiar with the seemingly endless array of indignities and flavors of shame that come with living in poverty. You get dirty glances for looking poor — but are also judged if you look “too rich,” by wearing something an observer deems too nice for someone on public assistance. Everything you buy or eat in view of others is up for public scrutiny and unwanted commentary…

During the course of my childhood, I had more embarrassing encounters at the grocery store checkout than I could count…

I’ve overheard snide comments in the lines at grocery stores about the attire of someone using an EBT card or the cars they parked outside of a convenience store where they used a card to buy milk. I’ve also heard faculty room gossip about profligacy of parents who used food stamps back in the 70s when I worked as a high school administrator and read endless articles about the so-called “Welfare Queens” who abused the systems in place. But this article reminded me of the impact that kind of judgment has on a child, especially one who experiences it day-in-and-day-out throughout their entire childhood. And the indignities are not limited to the grocery store:

I never went to birthday parties as a kid because I couldn’t afford to buy a gift. I would “get sick” and have to stay home on field trip days because I couldn’t afford the cost of the trip itself, let alone bring spending money for any souvenirs or food. Joining any activity that involved dues to pay or uniforms to buy would have been inconceivable.

Ms. Dempsey describes how today’s EBT cards draw less attention from those in line than the food stamps her mother used, but the strictures imposed on parents and observed by children still sting:

While the new plastic card may spare those families some shame, it can be difficult to reconcile that buying non-luxuries like toilet paper, tampons or a supermarket rotisserie chicken may be just as wild a fantasy as getting a child a pony.

The brief profile at the end of the article describes Ms. Dempsey with this single sentence:

Bobbi Dempsey is a freelance writer and a communications fellow at Community Change who is writing a memoir about moving 70 times before age 18.

I doubt that her mother was all that concerned about Ms. Dempsey’s test scores or how those scores might effect whatever school she was attending at the time… Until we can provide affordable housing and food security for all children in the country we cannot expect to close the widening gap between the rich and poor.

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