Flashbacks v. 2 — A (Gilded) Brush With Poverty

June 14, 2011

For the past two plus years, I’ve been working closely with a medical/legal partnership organization on a pro bono project at my firm.  I really enjoy the work, and I enjoy being involved in the leadership of a very important endeavor.

This morning, the organization I work with ran a “poverty simulation” for several firms, including mine.  This wasn’t the first year they did it, and it’s often very well received by the associates and summer associates who participate.  The idea is that the young lawyers and lawyers-to-be role play to see what it feels like to live at or under the poverty level.  To “experience” the hard decisions that must be made when your resources do not cover your liabilities.  How once you find yourself in a hole, everything in your life tends to topple right into that hole.

I was sitting with a colleague as the introductory remarks were being made, and she leaned over and said, “have you done this before?”  Meaning – have I played the roles?  In the past years that the firm had the event?

Um.  Yeah.  I’ve “played the role” of being at or under the poverty line.

Only, for reals.

There is no doubt that always, in my life,  I have been very lucky.  Or charmed.  Or both.  I am aware of that.  I’m aware of the fact that my brush with poverty lasted three months – maybe six – makes me so much more fortunate than most who find themselves slipping down that horrific slope of Need.

But back in 2001, soon after the Ex and I split up, I was in dire need.  I left him during a time where we were in an elective state of poverty – otherwise known as living the student life.  We had no savings.  We had no assets.  No accounts to empty.  Nothing.  We barely had available credit.  We had low rent, but that was because he was a student, and we lived in graduate student housing.  But HE was the student.  Not me.  Not me, who had the kids (never was it a question that he might take the kids).

There was nowhere in my very expensive student town that I could afford to live.  First, last, deposit?  Impossible, it seemed.  I was working 28 hours a week in a job that paid ($10/hour?  $12?  I can’t remember – but I took the job as a way to pay for the family’s groceries, not as a way to support three of us entirely).  I was also doing a good bit of freelance work, but it was erratic.

I ended up moving an hour away from my job, from the town that had become my home, to live near my sister, and to pay crappy-town’s rent levels.  $550/mo instead of $1500/mo.  And I drove to and from my hour-away-job, while trying to figure out what I was going to do. My sister watched my girls a couple of nights a week, and the Ex had them on the weekends.  Until he moved.  Very Far Away.  (The Middle of the Country is far away, no matter which coast you live on.)

The situation wasn’t sustainable, but it got me through the initial separation, and helped me to have my sister nearby.  It was such a dark time for me, and for her.  She was struggling through the end days of her own marriage.  She later told me that she had just geared herself up to leave her husband, and I announced to her that I was leaving mine.  So she felt she had to wait.  I think she ended up waiting another year and a half, if my memory and math is right.

So I headed back toward “home.”  I needed to find a place to live, a daycare for the girls, and I needed to find a full time, real-money-paying job.  It may be the topic of another post to discuss how unhappy my parents were that “home” did not mean their house, my home town.  But for many, many reasons, that was just not an option for me.  I believe the primary reason was that running back home to mommy and daddy felt like failure.  I wanted this to be transition, not failure.

So I was heading back to the San Francisco Bay Area with no savings, a part-time barely-more-than-minimum-wage, 2 kids, and a car.

I looked into subsidized housing, but the waiting lists were forever long.  I spoke to daycare centers, and was shocked that I was going to be paying almost $2,000/mo for two children.  (I was making $1200/mo, total.)

It felt impossible.  I really wasn’t sure how I was going to make this all work.  Looking back and telling the story now, it seems almost more impossible than it did back then.  Back then, I was determined.  Now, I look back at that Suzie and shake my head …

Not too long into looking for an apartment, a friend put me in touch with her landlord.  One of those who doesn’t want to keep her several properties up to code, and is happy to charge a little bit less rent to get her tenants to keep their mouths shut.  Fortunately, “not up to code” meant she didn’t have all 3 units in the (very nice Victorian) house split onto separate utilities accounts.  I really didn’t care.  I paid $1,400/mo for a 3 bedroom house on a great street around the corner from a Whole Foods.  And while she took 1st month’s rent and a security deposit, she waived the last month’s rent.  So, that went on my credit card, but how was I going to pay the second month’s rent?  I needed a job.  But how could I look for a job without childcare?

And this is where I went looking for public benefits.  In the form of subsidized day care.  I took my $300/week pay stubs and went to a city office, and I applied for a daycare subsidy.

The miracle?  What I now know to be a miracle, after working with clients who are wholly dependent upon public benefits?

I was approved that day.  I had my voucher within 2 hours.  The woman who helped me was kind, caring, interested.


Within a week of the girls being in full-time care, I had a new job.  I was a paralegal in a small firm, making $40,000/year, instead of under $15,000.  And when I got my first paycheck, I brought it back to the office that gave me the childcare voucher, and canceled the voucher.  Boy, was the Ex pissed (since he had to pay for 1/2 of childcare).

So while my truly rocky days lasted less than 6 months (I left the Ex in October of 2001, and I moved into my apartment and started my new real job in February of 2002), the repercussions lasted a lot longer.  Other than the childcare voucher, I didn’t have much financial help in those first months, and I put a lot on my credit card.  I ended up overwhelmed with credit card debt pretty quickly.

Soon after I started working at my new job and was settled into my new apartment, I was able to realize just how lucky I was.  Not just lucky that I got the job – but lucky that I had the education I had, the experience that I had, the credit score that I had – things that were, essentially, handed to me early in life that allowed for these pieces to click into place.  How easy would it have been to fail at my reestablishment if only one of those pieces weren’t in place?  If I didn’t have work experience, or I didn’t have the option to put those start-up costs on a credit card?  Or if I had a sick child? Or if that child care subsidy person wasn’t actually my Fairy Godmother?

I had a lot of hard times in the next several years.  Like the day that the bank decided to put a 3-day hold on my paycheck, locking my funds over a weekend when I had no food.  I was so very angry talking to the customer service representative – how can you put a hold on a paycheck?  The same paycheck I get every single week?  I ended up hanging up on him.  If using the term “hanging up on” is typical for “throwing my phone into a concrete wall so that it shatters into a thousand pieces.”  [The kids were not around to witness that.  But I did do it.]

And when all of that credit card debt came home to roost, and I found myself choosing to give up my car (and my car payments) so I could start digging out of the hole — the mornings and evenings of being dependent on public transportation, being so very anxious that I’d be late to pick the girls up from daycare or from after-school care.  And it was all compounded once Lemon started school and Mouse was still in daycare.  I had to get to Mouse by 5:15 and then strap my bike to the front of a bus (one that came “every 30 minutes”) and get to Lemon by 6 on the other side of town.  Getting home so very late because “every 30 minutes” on the way home really isn’t.  Do you wait for the bus, even after 45 minutes, with 2 very hungry and grouchy children?  Or do you hook their backpacks to the bike’s handlebars, and walk them 30 minutes home, stopping at the grocery store to grab some food before their bedtime?

[They pick on me today – when they look back at those days of eating Annie’s Mac & Cheese more often than we’d ever eat now – they think I made those choices because of a lack of cooking skills.  They don’t remember what our evenings were like.]

But I still look back on that time as proof of my good fortune, and with gratitude.  And I won’t ever let myself forget just how hard that was, and how much harder so many people have it.  Bootstraps had nothing to do with my fortunate transition.  Happenstance – of birth, of education, of privilege – gets the credit, and no one else should be discredited for not having the same.

No one should be judged – ever – for not having things click into place as easily as I did.




  1. […] a minute … Mom; lawyer; wife. « Flashbacks v. 2 — A (Gilded) Brush With Poverty Birthday Parties Suck. June 14, […]

  2. What a story. I think most people don’t realize the little pieces of luck that make us the “haves.”

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