Legacies both ragged and rich: Michelle Tea on poverty and the American Family

Photograph by Taylor Brandon

“Growing up within the poorer half of our country is my history.”

By Michelle Tea for The Economic Hardship Project

What is family for broke folks? How does being broke break a family? For those of us who manage to break out, what happens to those we leave behind? For those of us who won’t be inheriting wealth, those more likely to inherit a box of ashes but not the means to inter them anywhere (which has happened to my own mother upon losing both her father and husband; when she passes, I fear I will be charged with not only her cremains but the boxes of passed-away family members— and family members of family members—whose representatives on earth lacked the funds to stash them someplace decent for all eternity), family is fraught, spinning up feelings of guilt and obligation, helplessness and resentment, resignation, and love.

I was born and raised in Chelsea, an urban enclave just across the water from Boston. A city always receiving the latest wave of immigrants. My grandfather, Irish, dropped out of school to join the navy in World War II. In his eighties he finally received an honorary high school diploma from the government—far too late for it to make a difference in his life. The bitterness in his voice as he grumbled about this hurt my heart—a stoic man who worked a factory job till he retired, if he’d ever had dreams about a better life, I’d never heard about them.

My mom didn’t go to college—nobody I knew went to college—and the insecurity about this was surely behind the mocking of collegiate-types, the sense that those people may be book-smart, but didn’t know shit about the “real world,” where you had to work a real job, one with a lousy boss and shitty pay that left your body broken and spirit smashed. In order to divorce my alcoholic father, my mom enrolled in the free nursing program Chelsea offered, getting a career a bit later in life, one that supported her until her COVID-forced retirement.

Poor families can be a paradox—both my sister and I were urged to be all we can be and, yes, aim for college, but when it came time to do that, nobody knew how. My parents were scared of bureaucracy, always certain there was something in the fine print to take advantage of the little guy. I learned this from them, and together, facing the paperwork of college, we were both stressed and anxious. They wouldn’t sign a loan for me—the thought of owing all that money was terrifying. I managed to scrape together enough for a couple semesters, but then gave up. My sister, a hardier, more capable sort, managed our parents better and got them on board, but even she was dissuaded from applying to Harvard, a “designer school” that actually meant nothing, in the eyes of our family, despite her being brilliant, the valedictorian, and urged by her advisers to go to an Ivy League school. Our parents wanted us to do better—in theory. In reality, not only did they not know how to support this, they had inherited and nurtured a wounded psychology that actually demonized everyone above them on the economic rung. How, then, could they really launch their children into what felt like enemy territory? The various push and pull of love within poor families, the way that poverty and the outside world impact these bonds—these are only a few of the ways care was corrupted through the stressors of poverty.

Though I have absolutely “gotten out,” moved to a big city and achieved, some years, a middle-class income, I have within me those fears of falling through the cracks that so many raised broke never fully shake. Growing up within the poorer half of our country is my history; the scarcity issues I continue to work through is my present. Tearing through the thoughtful and varied pieces in Going for Broke gave me those feelings of comfort and camaraderie seeing aspects of your own story can bring. In class-less America, where everyone, rich or poor, is adamantly middle class, it’s always a relief to see the experience of economic struggle discussed frankly. But the pieces gave me another feeling, too—the surfacing of my constant companion, casually dubbed my scarcity issues. The familiar trill of panic I consciously breathe down multiple times a week, the energetic answer to the refrain, “Am I going to be okay?”

I’m a writer constantly on that hustle Robert W. Fieseler documents in his 2020 HuffPost essay about the fallout of touring his tremendous book Tinderbox, as if he could afford to do such a necessary thing. I’ve been caught in such loops—must spend money touring book or else no one will buy book and I will never make money ever! It makes me reflect upon Annabelle Gurwitch’s 2019 essay about taking unhoused young people into her home for the LA Times, when she states, “If the city can’t accommodate artists from economically diverse backgrounds than only the privileged will get to create.”

And have pets! In Bobbi Dempsey’s 2018 Guardian piece, which investigates what happens when the pets of the poor have a medical emergency, she writes, “Pets are yet another thing that are used by people as an excuse to poor-shame, essentially telling indigent people that they aren’t worthy of the companionship of a loving pet.” I wondered as much before having my own son—did I have a right, as a broke person, to become a mother? But family is essential. Its hold on us, and the problems unique to broke families, is explored here to moving ends.

I’ll never forget the host of a radio show who had invited me on to talk about a book of working-class stories I’d edited asking, “Why should we care about these people? If they’re so smart, why are they poor?” In a culture that looks down on poor people, it makes sense that broke folks imagine they might be middle class; no one wants to be a loser. But the reality is, over 140 million American families are impoverished or low-income, says the Poor People’s Campaign, who carry on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quest for economic justice. And most American families do not fit into the heterosexual, nuclear model conservative forces insist upon, either; the 2002 census had only a scant 7 percent of families falling into that mom-dad-child paradigm.

Bearing witness to these stories brings us deeper into the truth of what it means to be an American family today. These pieces conjure compassion and empathy, as well as anxiety and frustration. How have we humans not found a better way to live together? How bad will it have to get, for how many people, before the old ways crash and something newer, kinder, more thoughtful emerges? Those are questions for us, the readers. For these writers have done their job: sharing the face of low-income family, with its legacies both ragged and rich.

Excerpted from Going for Broke: Living on the Edge in the World’s Richest Countryedited by Alissa Quart and David Wallis, published in collaboration with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project by Haymarket Books.

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1 Comment on "Legacies both ragged and rich: Michelle Tea on poverty and the American Family"

  1. This piece resonates with me. I grew up poor, and that feeling that I am somehow lacking has remained with me my entire life. This is despite the fact that I went to college and law school and have been steadily employed since graduating. That sense of being one step away from losing what I have managed to achieve and returning to the very bottom is never far from my mind. When you grow up in poverty, there is always a feeling of insecurity. And, sadly, at least for me, this has never gone away.

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