It was a bittersweet moment seeing the last manned spaceflight vehicle in the clear blue skies over the Catalina Mountains before it turned south for its passage over the University of Arizona campus. I've written before about how sad I am that the space program initiated by John F. Kennedy and its push to land the first man on the moon has devolved to a paper-thin shell of its former self. I grew up reading Heinlein and Asimov and Clark, fully expecting to see colonies on the moon, heck, maybe even on Mars, at some point in my lifetime. Now I'm not sure that will happen. Ever.
That particular dream seems to have died.
CNN shared a staggering statistic: 46.2 million people in America fell below the poverty line last year. One in five children are poor.
To illustrate what it feels like to be poor, CNN decided to feature a blog post by John Scalzi that he wrote shortly after Hurricane Katrina. It was his response to the question lots of people were asking after seeing the devastation and loss of life in the 9th Ward: Why didn't they leave?
I spent parts of two days reading through the more than 600 comments on this blog, unable to stop as so many shared their experiences of what it means to be poor, experiences many in the middle class can't imagine happening to anyone. The wealthy probably even less so.
My family wasn't as poor as Scalzi's was, nor as poor as many of the commenters, but reading through their experiences brought back memories I'd conveniently forgotten. I remember my mother taping bread wrappers over my shoes so I could play in the snow because I had no boots. I remember putting my winter coat on top of my blanket at night and huddling around an electric heater in the morning because my parents couldn't afford oil for the furnace. I remember a friend's mother commenting on my rundown heels and asking me if my feet hurt from them. I remember telling her no because I knew my parents didn't have money to buy me a new pair of shoes. We always had a roof over our heads and I don't remember going hungry for more than a few hours, but there were times when life was tough.
One of the consequences of being poor is that you often have no idea what your options are. Fortunately, my parents gave me options. They made sure I went to college and let me live at home for minimal room and board after graduation until I was able to make my own life. I went back to school and earned a second degree, one that allowed me to make a good salary through my middle earning years. I got used to buying books, owning my home, and developed a taste for Starbucks.
The other consequence of being poor is the fear that's always in the back of your mind that you might be poor again. You're always trying to make sure you have a safety net, a reserve you can fall back on for when times get tough. You get uncomfortable when the gas gauge in your car goes below a quarter tank or your bank account balance drops below a certain amount or the shelves in the pantry start to empty out.
But still groceries were costing more than I'd allowed myself in my head. Last week I passed on the trip to Starbucks for a bag of Pike Place roast. I stood in the coffee aisle at the supermarket and finally put a can of Maxwell House French Roast--on sale for $2.99--into my cart instead. It's been a long time since I've looked at a row of products and had to weigh what I wanted against what I could reasonably afford.
I know I have a warped sense of what's necessary from the fat years. Cable TV. A subscription to Netflix. My smartphone. Reading about people who are homeless or starving or have clothes too ragged to go on a job interview and no transportation to get to one makes that clear.
There are far too many people in that situation due to the prolonged recession we've been in. How many dreams have been shattered over the past five years? How many dreams haven't even been dreamt of? I don't know the solution to that problem, but we've got to come up with one soon. Surely the nation that put men on the moon can make sure people have homes and food and jobs.
By Arnold de Leon (Flickr: Space Shuttle Endeavour over Moffet Field) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Hurricane Katrina by http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Infrogmation