UNPOPULAR OPINION: Situational Poverty Is A Very Real Problem, From Someone Who's Been Through It
It began without warning, like it usually does. There was no sign that my life would change, and I was utterly unprepared.
It started two days after I returned home from the UK after my MA, although home wasn’t the pleasantest of places considering I still lived with my ailing grandmother and my pensioner father. But I would have appreciated its mere existence so much more had I known that I would very shortly be homeless.
Two days after I came back from the UK, my grandmother finally succumbed to age and infirmity, and even before I could mourn the woman who had brought me up, I was given instructions by her son -- my uncle -- to clear out of the house in the form of a letter to my father detailing my lack of moral character. Human greed is multifaceted and knows no end; suffice to say that a man who routinely put his hand down my shirt when I was a teenager and expressed interest in having sex with me when I was 17 is capable of more lusts than one.
So I picked up the suitcases I hadn’t even unpacked yet, and deposited myself at the only other place I could think of as a shelter - my stepdad’s house. I thought I would be safe there.
I had nowhere else to go -- my father, in the meantime, was living in a cramped apartment with his mentally ill sister who needed special care. Thankfully, my stepdad allowed me to remain in the attic room despite vociferous protests from his relatives, and a few weeks after that, I found a job and immersed myself in work.
I didn’t mind the three hour commute everyday in inhumanly crowded trains where I was slut and fat shamed on a regular basis and I didn’t spare a thought to how little I’d started eating -- all my food was provided by my employers for a small price, and I supplemented it with enough coffee and cigarettes to keep going. I was happy enough, at least for a while.
Gradually, though, the work hours started multiplying -- my average day would begin at 7 in the morning and after returning home at 10 pm, I would stay up till 3 in the night to finish my freelance projects. I still didn’t grudge it. After all no one ever said that earning money was easy, and I was determined to give it my best. Things began to slip at my day job, and eventually came to a point where my bosses’ dissatisfaction with me saw daily increases directly in proportion to my efforts at performing better, and I was physically isolated from the rest of the team.
I started self-harming again after 6 years, and my suicidal fantasies resurfaced. It was around then that my stepdad’s relatives decided to make an extended visit to his place as a result of which his generosity finally trickled to a stop. I was unceremoniously kicked out despite the fact that I’d been househunting in a city where single working women are not welcome to rent apartments, and all I needed was a bit more time to find a place I could move into.
Out of options, I shifted to a fleabag hotel where the room stank, the bathroom was too small to shower in, and the water which flowed out of the tap was filled with dirt -- yet where a 10 night stay would cost me my month’s salary, so little was I paid. At least I still had my day job. I still had my job, right?
That very week, in an incident where I was blamed for a mistake I hadn’t made, I finally lost my cool after weeks of sinking deeper into depression, and told my bosses that the fault lay not in my performance, that the way I was isolated in the office was detrimental to my mental health, and that the constant negativity I was subject to was hurtful. I ended up quitting even as I was fired, went back to the hotel, and utterly defeated, sank into a nightmarish sleep. When I woke up the next morning, the nightmare worsened.
My bosses had taken care to pay me by check for the last month I worked for them, knowing fully well that I didn’t have a bank account yet. As a result, I was not just homeless, but penniless too, until I could gather enough money to open an account -- a helpless double bind I had no way of immediately escaping.
My food had been provided by my employers so far, and without access to it, I began to starve. I borrowed what little money my father could give me and with that, I ate once a day from the roadside shack where the poorest of the poor would gather for a cheap meal. I smoked the most inexpensive cigarettes I could find to relieve my hunger pangs, because a day’s worth of smokes was still cheaper than a meal, rapidly developing mouth ulcers in the process.
In the end, I abandoned all dignity and begged my stepdad to let me back in because I had no more money to pay the hotel, and because staying at his place meant a free, unlimited supply of sweet, milky tea - my staple diet at the time. Tea and when the generosity of my family and friends afforded it, crisps and a few eggs, tea and the bitter taste of grudging charity -- that was what I Iived on.
Hungry, morbidly depressed, and in pain, I posted on my blog about my condition while discussing dieting as a form of privilege. The offers for help poured in immediately, scores of them...but I refused them all, touched though I was, hungry as I was. I had already cashed in my dignity for a roof, and I was determined to not let the hole in my belly swallow the last remnants of it by turning to strangers for help.
Then something happened which I did not expect -- that cursed post got picked up by the internet. And when public attention falls on you for being a middle class, fat person talking about starvation, the results can only be vicious. Even as I reached a state where I was unable to get out of bed, when merely standing up resulted in dizziness and mini blackouts, and my extremities were constantly numb for blood not being able to circulate that far, when I bled buckets during my period for the anemia I had contracted from poor nutrition, I received comment after comment telling me that I was privileged, that I had never known hunger or impoverishment. I was told that unless I was out on the streets, naked and barefoot, I wasn’t poor, that I, “as the only fat girl in India” shouldn’t eat again until I was thin, that starvation was good for my health, and why was I not selling off my wardrobe to provide myself with food?
We are brought up to think that poverty is the domain of skeletal children in the Third World -- an image that is almost glamourized in Western media, an ill that apparently only exists far away from us, so that when we hear about it, we are distanced enough to make some concerned noises and move on with our lives. This concept of poverty is incomplete at best and harmful at its worst because poverty has many faces, and can assault anyone with just a twist of fate. Poverty can be situational as well as generational, can exist in the West as well as in the Third World, and the Westernized parts of the Third World too.
Obviously there are glaring differences of privilege between the two kinds -- as much as I have struggled in the past few months, I can never know the sort of economic deprivation that generational poverty brings with it, a deprivation that is almost impossible to claw your way out of. I managed to clamber out of my sinkhole because I had the privilege of being born middle class and all the associated perks that come with it. I had an extensive and expensive education which gave me a toehold in the industry I work in, while education of any kind is one of the biggest challenges that generationally poor people face.
Had I been born on the streets, I would have had no way to get out of there, but as a middle class individual, I still had a way of acquiring a roof over my head even if I suddenly found myself without one. Generational poverty is a stark, horrifying reality, and I feel thankful for my privilege which never allowed me to witness it firsthand. This, along with the pride I mentioned before, was one of the reasons behind my refusal to accept help even though I really needed it, because I still had a chance of surviving on my own while people affected by poverty all their lives didn’t.
My privilege allowed me to be employable, allowed me a support network of friends and family which never let me lack for shelter and provided food on the worst days. Situational poverty being the result of unexpected circumstances comes with a chance of reversibility, slim though that chance sometimes may be. It is defeating, but never as defeating as the struggle of the generational poor, and I would never compare the two ills because they will never be the same.
I would never call for what I faced to be compared to what millions of people in my own country face and die of on a daily basis -- what I am, however, calling for is an end to the kind of belittling situationally poor people are subject to, because the struggle -- even though it doesn’t begin at birth -- is very real and trivializing it only serves to pull down a sinking person further.
Despite the criticism I’ll face for saying this, it needs to be said that there is no one kind of poverty -- poverty exists on a spectrum, and only those who suffer from it know its reality. Many people might mistake what I’m saying to mean that poverty is a lack of luxury, but nothing could be further from the truth. Because food is not a luxury, medicines are not a luxury, these are basic necessities essential to human life, necessities I did without and those who fall upon hard times do without.
We turn poverty into “poverty porn”, finding pathos in the lives of the poorest among us, but just as the lives of generationally poor people don’t deserve to be turned into a spectacle designed for lip service to compassion, the lives of the situationally poor don’t deserve to be belittled either. Situational poverty often stays hidden because of its markers -- because it can exist when you have a roof over your head, running water, electricity, sanitation, some amount of food, and even internet access. Situational poverty also means living in the constant dread of any and all of those things disappearing in the twinkling of an eye.
At the heart of it, all poverty is marked by insecurity - not knowing where your next paycheck will come from, not knowing where your next meal will come from, not knowing when what little you have left will disappear.
I’m lucky that my condition has improved since, and it is my middle class privilege that made the change possible. I had the privilege of being able to wait it out, the privilege of having received adequate nutrition for most of my life as a result of which my body wasn’t destroyed by the starvation and never succumbed completely to the severe anemia and stomach ulcers that resulted. I had the privilege of being able to survive while I waited for the money I earned to come in through bureaucratic delays, money obtained from freelancing gigs I wouldn’t have got without the privilege of my education.
The story of my poverty has an ending -- the biggest privilege of all, and one which will raise questions concerning my qualifications to speak about this in the first place. But I speak because while my own starvation ended, there are millions who have fallen in similar circumstances for whom it won’t, or at least, not easily. Millions who will live with that quietly ticking malaise eating away at their hearts and bellies, silent and hidden, never mentioning a word of it for fear of rebuttal, for the shame, for the outright denial which will inevitably occur, and the exhortations for gratitude even though gratitude is the one thing they do not lack.
When you convince yourself constantly that you could do with just a little less, and then a little lesser than that, when you constantly reassess the definition of “enough”, when you obsessively count every last bit of spare change you have several times a day just to make sure it’s still there, and your priorities regarding food are not about health and nutrition but what will stay in your belly the longest, when you tighten your belt till you have to gouge new holes in it just to have it fit your new budget, and then tighten it further -- it’s a lesson learnt so much more keenly and acutely than any that could be taught with punishing words. The attacks feel cruel and demoralizing, especially at the end of a long day wracked with starvation, bodily weakness and illnesses, with insecurity and fear, but as punishments go, they are nothing compared those life has steadily been dealing out.
How far does hardship have to go before those facing it are spared this anger from better off quarters? How far do they have to sink? Or will the ire abate only when there is no chance of making it above the waterline again, when you’ve settled like a deadweight at the bottom of the ocean floor?
My request is not for aid, or for empathy even, but merely a cessation of the kind of vitriol, the bile that situationally poor people face from their well-off counterparts. Amidst all the hatemail and the juxtaposing offers of help I received in the aftermath of my blog post, one message stands out starkly in my memory. It was from a reader who wished to remain anonymous and who said that they had known the kind of hunger I did while living in one of the richest cities in the US. They asked me if in order for their hunger to not be dismissed as inconsequential, they would have to lose the clothes off their back and the roof over their head as well.
This is the question I ask now, unless it’s possible to create a world where people booted in the face by circumstance are not further trodden down on in the name of fairness and justice.