Fresh Eyes: Growing up poor


by Terry L. Austin

I grew up poor, in “the projects” of Utica, NY. We were never “on welfare,” but we did get surplus food — huge blocks of cheese made from milk bought by the government to keep the dairy farmers around us afloat, white margarine that looked like lard until you mixed the blob of yellow food coloring into it and 5-pound jars of Crisco and peanut butter.

Public housing was segregated then in New York: There was another project for black people downtown, and way in the back, on one end of one of the five buildings in my development, lived three Mohawk Indian families. The men built skyscrapers in summer when the weather was good and were unemployed the rest of the year.

Utica was filled with immigrants from Sicily, Syria and Eastern Europe (mostly Poland, Lithuania and the Ukraine). Many were predominantly Catholic countries, and it was before Vatican II, so there were many large families in the projects. My best friend was the oldest of seven, and another good friend was one of six.

Almost all the fathers in our neighborhood were employed, and they made decent salaries as butchers, truck drivers and workers in textile factories (before the plants moved to North Carolina). But their large families, work injuries and childhood diseases like polio made it hard to save anything. Plus, many of the guys stopped at a bar on the way home to decompress from work, and some bet on the horse races at a nearby harness track.

Even as children, we were aware that other people looked down on us, and that we were being shortchanged.

Though our family was small, only the four of us, money was hard to come by for us, too. I was always tall for my age and had long and very narrow feet. I had one pair of shoes at a time — black or brown “to go with everything.” Every time I needed new shoes, I noticed my parents couldn’t afford to go out on Saturday night for about three months. There was one period I was growing so fast that I needed new shoes about every three months.

When my Dad got a raise one year, I was told never to talk about it to anyone. I think it might have put us over the cut-off for public housing.

Long-distance phone calls were really expensive then. After my father’s mother moved to California, we talked with my favorite grandmother only twice a year for 10 minutes or so, at Easter and Christmas. Once I got $5 for my birthday and spent it all on five little “jeweled” pins in the shape of birds and animals. My mother couldn’t understand why, but now I realize I had never before bought anything I didn’t need.

My parents were raised Catholic, and though the church was very sexist and there were rumors the local priest was sleeping with his housekeeper, some of its teachings stay with me today. Two good things I was taught by Catholics: 1) that everyone all over the world is connected, and 2) that no matter how little you have, you can always help someone else. That’s why all us kids trudged off to church on Sunday mornings, each clutching a quarter to donate to “the children starving in Armenia.”

Even as children, we were aware that other people looked down on us, and that we were being shortchanged. Utica’s bussing policy was to bus any children who had to walk a mile or more to school. Our elementary school was 0.9 miles away. The “playground” in our project was a concrete pad next to “the garbage house” (a shed where people took their trash until it was picked up by the city). It had two large concrete three-quarter moons, a small sandbox, a couple of benches and a chain-link fence around it. Teenagers in our neighborhood actually hung out there at night in the summer, and the cops would regularly drive by and chase everyone off.

The older brother of one of my friends once went to jail for a couple of days for some petty crime. When he came back, all the kids gathered around him to hear what it was like. He told us, “It wasn’t so bad.  I got to go to the dentist.”

It wasn’t until I was older and had close friends who were raised middle-class that I realized the advantages I had growing up poor. Middle-class folks are taught that the highest principle to operate by is that “everything is okay.” (A corollary is “Don’t make waves.”) As a child, do you see racism, sexism, injustice? “No, no, this is America, everything is okay.” There’s child abuse or alcoholism in your family? “No, no, we don’t talk about that, everything is okay.” Middle-class children soon learn to mistrust their own perceptions, become very unsure of themselves, and worry constantly about being “nice.”

In contrast, working-class, poor and other oppressed people highly value “telling it like it is.” We’re the target of lots of economic, racial and sexual injustice, and we know everything’s not okay. We have good BS detectors. We’re more aware that all we have for security is other people and we tend to be closer and more supportive of each other. We also use sarcasm, black humor and sick jokes to help us deal with what we suffer, and none of those are “nice.” So, especially in middle-class contexts, we often end up feeling like we’re “too” — too frank, too disruptive, too angry.

Actually, more than most people, we know who we are, we can think clearly, and we know what’s what.

Terry L. Austin is a retired jill-of-all-trades, having worked at everything from operating a key-punch machine (actual key blanks) to managing a NYC acting studio to editing web pages for the EPA. She is most proud of co-founding, with Ervin Brisbon, the NC Racial Justice Network and Future Leaders youth program. She lives in Jamestown and is the mother of three and the grandmother of three, soon to be four.