From Middle Class to Public Assistance

I remember my shock when the mother of one of my daughter’s friends opened a $50 bottle of rosé — approximately my annual alcohol budget — at a summer gathering. She poured me a generous glass and asked if it was any good. It was delicious.

I refrained from further comment on the rosé. I had lived among people far more affluent than myself long enough to understand the charade; when pretending to be something other than what you are, do not call attention to disparities. No, I didn’t talk about my comparative poverty, the failing I was most ashamed of, with friends or neighbors or co-workers or siblings, or the other parents at my kids’ school. Short of the bi-weekly, ritualized panic attacks my husband and I forced ourselves to breathe through when opening the stack of bills on the kitchen counter, the whole thing was basically a no-go.

I admit that our family’s secret shame of middle-class pretending was also — in certain ways — a secret source of pride for me: it took skill to pull it off. Instead of arranging playdates at our house, I’d choose the park or whichever museum I had spent three months on the public library’s waiting list for. I attended a dozen birthday parties at my kids’ friends’ beautiful homes that appeared as if straight out of Anthropologie catalogs, knowing that I wouldn’t invite them to my tiny house with its un-landscaped yard and hand-me-down decor. As long as I didn’t invite anyone over or call attention to the disparity, it was easy enough to pretend to be middle class.

My husband and I are educated adults with two young children, two cars, and a mortgage in a sought-after neighborhood of a beachside city. No one saw our (nonexistent) savings or retirement accounts. Our mounds of student debt. Or the fact that we were enjoying life, mostly, but living right on its edge: one missed paycheck away from a fat zero in the bank. We clung to the way we wanted our kids to grow, with one parent (me) dropping off and picking up every day, able to stay home on sick days and holidays and spring break and summer. In other words, working full-time for my family, and part-time for pay.

It hadn’t always been like that. I owned a yoga business in Washington, DC before kids, working long, odd hours and making a good living. Combined with my husband’s office salary and benefits, we were comfortable. We worked for years before having children, and along the way we bought a condo and padded a savings account nicknamed “baby fund.” I didn’t yet know how apt it was.

I scaled back on work after my son was born nine years ago. Then I scaled back even more once my daughter came along three years after that. It felt natural at the time; the beings I had gestated and nursed needed me nearly all day and night. And I needed them, too: their warm milk breath, the brush of their fuzzy peach heads against my lips. But closeness came at a price. As I spent more time with them, and they — like all humans — required regular inputs of food, clothes, and stimulation, the inarguable laws of mathematics revealed smaller and smaller sums in our baby fund. There was simply less coming in, and more going out.

We could fix the car that had broken down again — but for what? More commuting? Or we could sell the car and leave the city. Each month I felt our family inch closer to that edge.

The metronomic subtraction of our life’s savings and my uneasiness with the entire financial system contributed to my impulse to leave the city and attempt to homestead in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. City life no longer felt sustainable — or all that appealing — given the labor-intensive reality of raising small humans. Also, I yearned to get my hands in the soil, to grow food and shelter animals, to trace the pinpoints of constellations instead of the dense fog of pollution in the nighttime sky. Once we established ourselves on the homestead, I believed, we’d become nearly self-sufficient. No longer wage slaves or consumers, but hardworking and free.

It didn’t work out as I’d planned. By the time we fled, “baby fund” was all used up. Life savings gone. Retirement accounts liquidated. We found ourselves flat broke and virtually homeless with two children, and only by the hospitality of family did we survive it.

Fast forward several years. We settled in San Diego. I loved nearly everything about it: the progressive neighbors, the independent businesses, the sunny SoCal climate, the actual beach. Out of the fire sale of the homestead coupled with help from our parents, we put every cent into buying our house — which, though arguably too small for us, was hardly what anyone would call affordable.

My kids were then seven and four. My husband had rooted himself once again in the office world. But I lacked the stamina and time I once had to run a business in my industry. My skills had languished over a few years of not working for pay. The people I found myself up against were so much younger, so fresh, so childless; they taught yoga in booty shorts and sports bras. Most lived with roommates or their parents.

The upside of living in a wonderful neighborhood: a great public school. The downside of living in a wonderful neighborhood: house payments amounted to about half of all monthly income. When other parents pitched in cash as a gift for my child’s teacher, I made a card. When others shared photos on Facebook from their family summer trips to Morocco or Italy, I commented enthusiastically and then posted something political as a smokescreen; we weren’t going on any trips.

When my husband called on the day he was downsized, I could tell something wasn’t right.

“They’re eliminating my position,” he said.

I need to pull over, I thought. Not because I was too upset to drive, but because I couldn’t see a damned thing out of the dirty windshield. There were certain luxuries we allowed ourselves in our middle-class-pretender lifestyle, like soft toilet paper, and others we didn’t — like car washes.

“Oh.” I said. “How are you?”

“I’m okay.” It sounded like he meant it — which was surprising, and also not. He possesses a certain skill of calm in moments of stress. Sometimes, though, the fallout comes later.

My husband finished out the week at work, then he was home. We didn’t mention it to the kids yet, but puttered around the house instead, moving items from one room to the next, tidying the small space, our space. Thinking. On Monday the kids asked, why is Daddy home from work so early? I picked up more shifts at my part-time job, but it didn’t cover the shortage.

“This is what I advise you to do,” said my father-in-law. He sat in a large leather chair in his study, and my husband and I perched on a small loveseat about a foot below his eye level. I knew that my father-in-law, an accountant and investor, was using the verb to advise loosely. He meant that the only way out of this mess was to do exactly as he said.

“Sell your house. Move out of the neighborhood. Rent a place in a development — the suburbs. You’ll get a much better deal.” He looked directly at me as he said this, knowing I would hate the plan.

I swallowed hard. If I had stayed full-time in the workforce after having kids, and if I hadn’t whisked my family to Colorado, we wouldn’t be in this predicament. I felt lucky to spend my time with my kids and to have pursued a dream, even if it failed. Simultaneously, I felt ashamed of my now-paltry earning power. The subtext lurking in that conversation: selling our house meant that we’d be priced out of our neighborhood, and my kids’ school, forever.

My father-in-law cleared his throat, about to dispense some more hard-knock wisdom. He leveled his gaze at my husband. “Finding a job could take a year.”

My face reddened, and I could feel my pulse in the palms of my hands. It’s my life he was talking about uprooting. My home, my family. I had worked so hard to create a good life in a place I loved, the first home where I felt I belonged. Tears flooded down my cheeks — a handicap, I’ve often thought — to feel so much and let it on so easily.

“The kids will have to change schools,” I protested. “Our neighborhood school is wonderful. They love it. I love it for them.” My father-in-law shrugged. A house is a house — an investment — to him, and a neighborhood is merely scenery. At that moment, he spent at least half of his time on business trips and cruises, at his second house in Las Vegas, or his third one in Lancaster. For profit or a better deal, he moved his family over and over when his sons were young.

My husband nodded beside me as his father spoke. How could he? My brain flashed betrayal; he knew how hard I’d worked on the garden, how I’d painted the kids’ shared bedroom myself and had carefully allotted space for the four of us and all our things in an imperfect but lovable 800-square-foot house. He knew how I felt like a part of the community.

“It makes sense,” my husband said to his father. I heard him all but agree to move our family to a cookie-cutter suburban development, an anemic shadow of the vibrant, walkable neighborhood I call mine. It felt like standing at the edge of a yawning pit of suburban big-box nothingness while the ground beneath me started to give way.

Saying yes to my father-in-law’s advice felt like a siren song to slip us into the oblivion of easier living. I needn’t have woken up at night to calculate the sum of mortgage plus student loans plus car payment, or feel my chest tighten every time I caught sight of the stack of bills. But I knew in a moment that I couldn’t. Making my children change schools and giving up our home and all the relationships I’d worked hard to cultivate couldn’t be the only solution. Selling our home without buying another meant that we’d probably never own a home again. There had to be another way.

“No,” I said. “We can keep our house. I’ll figure out how.”

I got on the phone with a friend who had been through unemployment a few years back. I researched, called, kept records and spreadsheets, and within a short time I knew all the acronyms: UI (Unemployment Insurance), EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer), SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), KYHC (Keep Your Home California), Medi-Cal. It wasn’t simple to navigate, but I felt relief that our society has not abandoned the lifelines that weave together a social safety net.

I discovered free school lunches for those living below the poverty line — which, by every calculation, we were — and camp scholarships funded by socially responsible corporations. I devised ways to spend half of what I once did on groceries because organic is good, but non-organic is edible. I learned how to let my kids’ hair, and my own, grow long to save whatever small sums we had been spending on haircuts.

And this learning curve became another source of shame and pride, just not so secret this time. Pushing a shopping cart of discounted pasta and canned beans, I felt the embarrassment of buying groceries by the grace of government assistance, but I smiled at the cashier as she approved my food stamp purchases, and I survived.

While we were on welfare, I finally dared to invite the woman who had served the beautiful rosé to my house. I admitted sheepishly that though my home was small and a little out-of-date I loved it and was struggling to keep it. She graciously drank a glass of the $8 bottle of red I served and offered to help my husband network. I opened up to another friend, and she confided her own family’s challenges to stay in the ever-gentrifying neighborhood. It felt scary as hell to out myself as someone who juggles bills in the best of times and gratefully accepts government assistance in the worst. By exposing my vulnerability, I discovered that there are others in this bougie, upwardly-mobile neighborhood who struggle.

We somehow endured being flat broke with two kids, again. After four months on welfare, my husband found a new job. We managed to keep our house, and the strain of poverty on our marriage was less than the strains we had already endured. In other words, survivable. Today I have fewer illusions about where our family stands: neither middle class nor poor — perhaps a new category, middle-class adjacent. I work full-time now, but the cost of childcare eats away at my increased earnings. We still struggle every month with the stack of bills.

I won’t lie: feeling solidly rooted in the middle, complete with savings and retirement accounts sounds preferable to where we are. But having seen how much worse our financial situation can get, I’ve found a small measure of peace with how it is now.

Still, if we sit at my scratched and sloping kitchen table, bring a nice bottle of rosé, won’t you?

Danielle Simone Brand is a writer and yoga teacher based in San Diego. Her articles and essays about parenting, health, cannabis, and culture appear in web and print publications.

Photo credit: Charles Williams, CC BY 2.0.