A Rock and a Hard Place: A Story about Poverty and Wishful Thinking
I grew up poor. Of course, poor is relative, and to some degree, everyone was poor where I grew up in rural Minnesota. The median household income in Cromwell in 2016 was $26,094. In contrast, Duluth, a city about an hour away, has a median household income of $45,950. So, it is a poor area for this region. Against this backdrop, my family was poor, owing to the fact that only one of my parents regularly worked outside of the home for most of my childhood, my father’s employment was fraught with periods of layoffs and injury, and because my parents were very young when they had me (my mother was in high school). While I wasn’t the poorest of the poor and benefited from support from my grandparents, I grew up aware that we didn’t have the nicest home (a trailer in the woods), best toys, braces for my teeth, other families seemed to have more, and that finances stressed my parents out. I remember one winter when my father was laid off of work, we ate potatoes and eggs during January and February. I remember wanting things to be better for my parents. I remember, in about the first grade, wishing that Santa would bring us more money. As a child, I really didn’t have the tools to understand poverty, how it works, how to escape it, or that escape from poverty is atypical. In my immature mindset, poverty was something best escaped through some miraculous circumstance. For instance, Charlie Bucket escaped poverty by finding a golden ticket in his chocolate bar and surviving the maniacal factory trials of a mad capitalist by virtue of his….virtue. The Beverly Hillbillies escaped poverty by finding oil on their property. Following this theme, I was convinced that we would escape poverty by finding a valuable rock. This happened twice.
The swampy yard of my childhood featured at least two large rocks. I would climb on one of them, which was mossy and would have been a good location for a rock garden if it wasn’t set in a swamp or shade. Another rock that captured my imagination was located inside the forest across from our driveway. This rock was also located in one of many swampy pools near our home which was ideal for finding frogs in the spring, but would dry up by summer. Something about that particular rock captured by imagination. It was gray and jagged. Like the other rock, it was large enough to sit and play on. Perhaps because it was deeper in the woods, surrounded by ferns and other prehistoric plants, half submerged in a vernal pool, I imagined it was associated with dinosaurs. I imagined that the rock had something to do with the extinction of the dinosaurs. It became obvious to my mind that it was in fact, a meteor. I knew, on a scientific level, that meteors are rare and valuable, so I decided that this was going to be our golden ticket out of poverty. On a superstitious level, whenever we saw a meteor streak across the sky, my mother told us to say “money, money, money” as fast as we could, until it disappeared and perhaps money would come our way. I was always disappointed that they never lasted long enough to say the incantation more than a few times, if any at all. Money certainly never came of it. In any event, I convinced my brother that it was a meteor. It probably isn’t hard to stretch the imagination that far, since it was a large rock in the middle of a forest. Obviously it got there somehow, so why not outer space? My mind was not geologically grounded enough to consider glaciers. My brother and I dragged my mother out to this meteor, convinced that it was going to make us some money. She followed us to the rock. Maybe she cautiously hoped that we had indeed stumbled upon something of value. Just like Antique Roadshow, undiscovered wealth was waiting to be found. I showed her the rock and explained the characteristics that clearly made it a meteor. It wasn’t. I don’t remember what happened after we brought her into the woods. But, we never became wealthy from it and eventually I forgot about the rock and stopped playing in the woods.
A random image of dinosaurs on a rock from FreePic
The second rock incident happened much later. I went on a road trip to Thunder Bay, Ontario with my grandmother, brother, and mother. I was about fourteen years old. On the way back, we stopped at a rest stop or overlook, and I saw a large, clay colored rock. I was convinced that this was an agate. I suppose traveling up the North Shore of Lake Superior I had agates on the brain. I convinced my brother that it was an agate. Although it was dull and reddish brown, I was sure that if we loaded it into the car, then cracked it open, it would split into two perfect agate geodes. The otherwise dull colored rock had a specks that glistened in the sun, which to me indicated that it was secretly an agate. This was around the time my parents divorced and we were moving on to a new life in a low income apartment, on food stamps, in a new single parent household in Isanti, MN. A magnificent agate would have been a huge help. My mother was reluctant, but once again I got my brother on board. We both convinced her to load the forty or fifty pound rock into our vehicle. After all, we couldn’t possibly leave this opportunity for wealth behind. It road around in our vehicle for months. Eventually, my mother asked a rock collector at the county fair about it. The expert scoffed at the idea that we would find such large agate. But, we didn’t know how agates formed or how they would have broken up into smaller pieces over time. I was disappointed that it was….just a rock. It was a rock and an unwanted passenger in the backseat of our car. I think we eventually rolled the rock onto the lawn of our low income apartment complex, which upset the management. The last I remember was seeing it rolled up against a tree by the parking lot. Did we get into trouble? Did they make us move it? Did they know it was our rock? I don’t know. I just know that once again, we pinned our hopes on a mineral miracle.
What I imagined we would find inside the rock….
I’ve been thinking about these stories lately. It seems foolish that I believed, on more than one occasion, that we could escape poverty by finding valuable rocks. But, these ideas are really no different than some of the other faulty thinking regarding poverty or social class. For one, the idea of discovering something valuable to escape poverty is a common narrative in society. I already mentioned Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Antique Roadshow, and Beverly Hillbillies. Any story involving hidden treasure similarly follows the notion that wealth is out there waiting to be found. Lottery tickets similarly create the notion that wealth is out there. It is just a matter of the right numbers at the right time….and SOMEONE has to win. Even if the odds are low, it COULD be you if you just participate. The Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes also reinforces the faulty thinking that wealth is something that can unexpectedly happen. Game shows also promote this idea, as contestants compete for money or prizes. Of course, some skill might be involved, but a person’s ability to solve word puzzles, guess the correct price, or answer trivia questions is generally not a surefire way to make it ahead in society. In another example, one of my favorite children’s stories was called Silly Simon, about a foolish young man who was abused by his mother and could never do anything right, until his silly antics caused a princess to laugh. He was awarded gold from a king for this feat. This teaches that wealth is something that can happen in just the right circumstances or with a not so useful skill-set that suddenly has value. Another common trope is the orphan who is adopted into wealth, such as Annie, Oliver Twist, or a low rated TV show that aired when I was a child called Rags to Riches. At least I never once imagined escaping poverty through adoption! I grew up in a world informed by Publishers Clearing House, scratch tickets, stories of orphans and treasures, game shows, etc. At the same time, never once did my pre-college formal education tackle the topic of causes of poverty. This is a disservice to children, who are often bullied for their social class. I remember my brother was once upset that a classmate of his (in Isanti) said that our family lived in the dumpster by the school. I remember a classmate (in Cambridge) picking on my family for using food stamps and another teasing me because my family didn’t own our own washing machine (which I hadn’t even considered a sign of poverty until teased for it. I liked going to the laundromat). If children are not raised to understand social class, then being poor is mysterious and easy to blame on lack of luck or some kind of flaw.
Even as I entered college, I really didn’t understand class. I felt embarrassed that everyone else seemed to have stories about going on vacations that involved sailing in Greece or backpacking in Europe. I didn’t want to talk about myself. (Of course, at this point in my life I have traveled a lot, but upon graduating high school I had never been on a plane and felt jealous when I met college students who had studied abroad in high school or went on elaborate family vacations. I felt less than them! That this was not a matter of money, but that I wasn’t “good enough” to have these opportunities. But, these feelings motivated me to prioritize travel). I felt ashamed that my parents were not doctors, professors, business owners, lawyers, or any of the other prestigious professions that other students’ parents seemed to have. I felt that there was something wrong with me and my family. I felt that I was inferior. That if I was smarter, more attractive, harder working, more talented, more outgoing, less strange, or any number of other qualities, that I too would have an exciting and successful life. So, rather than analyze the difference between myself and other students I met as a matter of socioeconomics, I felt that I was defective. Internalizing being poor as a flaw or a failure was just as faulty as believing that wealth could come from meteors (or lottery tickets, sweepstakes, game shows, etc.). Yet, this is more insidious and pervasive. It is something that I believe to some degree even to this day. Being poor….it did make me flawed! I have crooked teeth because we couldn’t afford braces. I have a crooked spine as well. We didn’t have access or an understanding of psychology, so some of these needs also went unmet or unknown. So, I am not the optimal person I might have been in other socioeconomic circumstances. Certainly, I am a passable person and everyone has flaws. Yet, for all of my passion for learning, all of my talent, hard work, or any number of positive attributes, I will never be “living my best life.” In parts, I am to blame. A scarcity mindset prevents me from taking too many risks or living too freely. I will never feel empowered to quit a job I don’t like or make major life changes because in the back of my mind, I know that there is a lot to lose and fear of going without.
Yeah, not really. But life is….okay.
The narrative of self-determination is perhaps the hardest one to overcome. I can rationally conclude that success does not come from meteors, agates, game shows, or lottery tickets. Yet, I have not quite abandoned the notion that with hard work, education, talent, risk taking, determination, etc. I should be able to accomplish my goals and dreams. This is the narrative that our educational systems socialize us to believe in the most, as in the context of capitalism, educational systems need to justify their own existence by promising that education can help us become self-actualized, successful people. So, this is why I find myself up against a rock and a hard place. This is also why I think we need to be careful about what kinds of stories we tell ourselves about class. We must abandon the language of “living the best the best life,” goal digging, girl bosses, slaying and narratives of self-made successes. This isn’t to argue that everyone should adopt “learned helpnessness” or the idea that nothing we do has an impact on our environment or life outcomes. Instead, I think that narratives about upward mobility or class should be tempered by socioeconomic realities rather than individual efforts. This itself is contested, as conclusions about upward mobility vary depending upon how this is measured and defined. For instance, the U.S. Treasury Department posits that upward mobility is a reality for low income Americans, who on average see their incomes rise over time as measured by tax returns. If one defines upward mobility as entering a new tax quintile, then yes, upward mobility is possible. Marxists define things more broadly, as class is about a relationship to production. A quintile increase in taxed income may not translate to increased access and control of capital. Because upward mobility is not operationalized by Marxists as increased status or income, social mobility is less common in socialist interpretations. In this broader view, capitalism itself is prone to instability and declining rates of profit over time, so income gains are never a given and always challenged by a profit motive that is inherently at odds with high or even stable standards of living for most workers. But, one does not need to be a Marxist to understand that life is limited by class, and compounding this, it is limited by gender, race, sexuality, ability, etc. It is also limited by job availability, unemployment trends, globalization, new technology, etc. You can work very hard, have many talents, educate yourself extensively, make all the right choices, and you can still end up working menial, unrewarding jobs in which you worry about retirement and live paycheck to paycheck.
It was foolish for me to think that we would find money in the form of a meteor or an agate. Even if we had, that money would not have sustained us for long. I had so much hope back then. But, of course, this is false hope and wishful thinking. My favorite quote is “We must prefer a real hell to an imaginary paradise” by Simone Weil. Of course, she was probably talking about some spiritual nonsense, but I have always interpreted it as it is better to think clearly without hope, than have false hope in ignorance. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of hope that most working people will have a windfall of wealth, much less live their lives without economic hardship and worry. There are no meteors, agates, winning lottery tickets, etc. to save us. Even education, hard work, innovation, talent, etc. are not tickets to a better life. A better life is secured through collective struggle, not individual efforts or accomplishments. It is class struggle that shortens the workday, promises pensions, provides health care, mandates paid leave, and all of the other benefits that ACTUALLY do improve lives and creates opportunities. Living our best lives is a function of the mass movements that seek to end war, protect the environment, provide public transportation, end police brutality, empower women, dismantle racism, etc. So, I do have some hope, or at least, a methodology for betterment.