What I Want You to Know is a series of reader submissions. It is an attempt to allow people to tell their personal stories, in the hopes of bringing greater compassion to the unique issues each of us face. If you would like to submit a story to this series, click here. Today’s guest post is by Keshia W.

What I want you to know is that poverty is not a choice, but rather a circumstance that severely limits a person’s choices. Poverty affects everything in my life, and makes everything more difficult. There are so many stereotypes about lower income people and in cases where these stereotypes are true, it is not necessarily because of a fundamental flaw in the person in question, but rather the result of a lack of opportunity.

My family and I live well below the poverty line. The assumption that my husband and I are lazy, or that we haven’t worked hard, couldn’t be further from the truth. We have both busted our butts to get degrees. We have papered the country with resumes. We have done volunteer work to beef up our work experience, and taken menial jobs to bridge the gaps in the meantime. After two years of searching and working in fast food and retail, I am FINALLY employed part-time in a job related to my field of study. I am barely making table scraps but at least it’s a step in the right direction. My husband, while in school, has taken work wherever he can. We will do what it takes to support our family, but the fact of the matter is that even though we work we still struggle. 

My husband and I both grew up middle class, but have learned so much these past few years of living on next to nothing, about how privilege really does play a huge role in what a person is capable of accomplishing. Of course there are success stories, where someone from very humble roots is able to rise up and completely improve their lives, but the reason why these stories are so remarkable is because of the sheer force of will required to make it happen. 

When you are poor, the odds are stacked against you from the get-go. People may look at my laundry pile and question why I can’t keep it under control, not understanding that not having daily access to a washer and dryer makes it nearly impossible. I am intelligent and driven, and even so it took me six years to finish a four year degree because I was also working at a minimum wage job and raising a baby and had neither the time nor the money to finish school at the traditional pace. Working and going to school is grueling—even more so when you don’t have a vehicle and it takes you an hour and a half by public transit to get from one place to another. Life is simply exhausting. A trip to the grocery store that would take someone else 45 minutes ends up taking three hours when you have to wait for the bus. It is especially time-consuming when you can only carry a few grocery bags at a time, and you end up having to make this the trip multiple times per week. But it’s not just the logistics of getting around that makes life hard. Its other things—things that I took for granted before I knew what it was like to go without.

If someone with money suffers from insomnia they can go to the doctor, get a prescription for a sleep aid, fill it, and get to sleep. If someone without money suffers from insomnia, that’s too bad. Medication is expensive and unless you have a good enough job that you either have drug coverage or make enough money to pay for it yourself, you’re just going to have to spend all day riding the bus between minimum-wage jobs on no sleep. I do not have insomnia, but I do have back injuries. I am limited in the kinds of jobs I can do because if I stand for an entire shift I won’t be able to walk the next day. I know other people with the same problem who had this issue resolved by a weekly visit to the chiropractor, but I can’t afford to go to the chiropractor. I don’t sleep well at night because I’m in pain, I can only carry either of my children for a few moments at a time, and my quality of life is severely reduced, yet there’s nothing I can do about it because I simply can’t afford the treatment.
I volunteer at a drop-in for street-involved youth so I am privy to all types of stories that echo how poverty robs you of your basic human dignity. Our journeys are all unique, but the message remains that because we don’t have the money that other people have, we can’t have the things in life to which everyone has a right.

I have met young adults in excruciating pain because they do not have dental coverage yet require a root canal. Everyone gets cavities, but when you have money you just go to the dentist and get them filled. For so many out there that isn’t an option. I have met multiple families with multiple children all living together in a one bedroom apartment because that is the only way they can afford the rent. I have met people who could not make it to their own parent’s funeral because there was simply no money to travel to the location. I have met people who did not graduate from high school, not because they were lazy, but because they grew up in homes where they were being beaten so badly that they were not allowed to go to school in case teachers started asking questions. 

Stress is a huge factor in how the lives of the poor play out. It is stressful not knowing how you are going to pay for next week’s groceries. It is stressful knowing that you could be one sick day away from homelessness—that if you get sick and you lose a day’s wages, you will not be able to pay your bills for the month. That puts a strain on relationships. Poor people are not just naturally bad at marriage and parenting, though that seems to be the stereotype. It is so much harder to be a good husband or wife, a good mother or father, a good sister, daughter, son, or friend, when you are under constant financial pressure and completely tapped out just from trying to keep your head above water. And you can forget about relationship counseling, or anger management, or any other kind of self-help that others have access to. Self-improvement doesn’t come free, and we don’t have $80 an hour to pay for therapy.

There is so much more I could say. So many more stories I could tell, so many more “for instances” I could share. But I will leave you with this:

There are very few people who are poor who actively chose that life. Yes, a better life is attainable, but for some, it takes all of their energy just to find food, shelter and clothing for the day. So the next time you see a poor person and think they should just go to school, find a job, or get their act together, please remember that they may be doing the best they can with what they have. Instead of your judgement, they could really use your support—and maybe a ride to the Laundromat.