Judging Poverty

by Joanna Nesbit

My 6-year-old daughter and I are off to collect a schoolmate of hers to play at our house. “That would be great,” the mother says when I phone. This mother doesn’t know me, nor can she remember Leah from school. I’m not surprised she’ll let her daughter come to our house—I know other parents who take Stacy home—but still, I can’t believe how trusting she is.

“Would you mind picking up Stacy? I’m down with a bad back.” She gives directions to a neighborhood I drive through now and again, mostly paint-peeled apartments and unsupervised kids who play rough at the nearby playground. I learn later she doesn’t own a car.

Stacy opens the door at my first tap, has been waiting, it seems. The apartment is small and dark, thick with the smell of cigarettes. A heap of blankets lies piled in front of a television just inside the doorway, preventing me from entering without treading on the blankets. From the front step, I note a sagging couch, stacks of tattered magazines, prescription bottles among piles on a coffee table. Leah can’t come here, I decide in that moment.

Suddenly the children’s friendship feels complicated. Unreciprocal, I see already, Stacy coming to our house because her single, working mother would prefer it that way anyway, but still I’ll finesse playdates so I need never state my concerns. What to say—I don’t want Leah exposed to smoke? The real reason feels more difficult. It’s about lack of opportunity, hard choices, living close to the bone. I’m not ready for my 6-year-old to play in that environment.

Yet as a child, I played in worse places, and I have no sense of being harmed. The poorest family, a trailer family, lived just up the road from us. With Dad long gone and Mom working full time, the five kids got themselves on the school bus every morning, and during summers wandered freely, often to our farmhouse.

My sister and I went to their place, too, lured by the freedom from adults. Not once did we deem them unworthy friends, though their trailer stank of something sour. We spent whole afternoons in the tiny kitchen making cinnamon toast, and if the kids’ mother returned from work early, Rebecca and I tumbled out the backdoor into the woods to sneak away. Once, from the trees, I watched the woman charge into the trailer to order her two boys out for sticks for some infraction we hadn’t witnessed. They chose rotten ones, and we watched her flail those sticks across their backs, her face rigid with rage. The sticks broke after two blows.

Stacy’s mom appears from a back room, bracing her back with one arm. “Hi,” she says. She doesn’t invite me in, and she seems tired in a deep, core kind of way, but she’s friendly. I ask about her back. “I was lifting boxes,” she says, “and tweaked it. I’ve missed a week of work, and now I’m behind a paycheck.” Gesturing toward Stacy, “Her birthday’s coming.”

My husband earns a comfortable salary, and with paid sick leave he doesn’t have to worry about time off work. I can’t say, “I know.” But we chat about injuries, while Leah waits beside me, silent. I sense she’s comparing this place to her own, though she doesn’t comment later, and neither do I. But I feel guilty because I’m already wondering whether I’ll pursue this friendship. Stacy is likeable, the kids compatible, but the cigarettes, the clutter…

As a child, I could have said, “I know.” A 70s alternative childhood, cluttered in its own way. On our island of 600, my parents’ friends were back-to-the-landers like us, with chickens and second-hand clothes—not vintage consignment but Salvation Army, the “Sallies,” as my mom called it. They smoked pot, hated Nixon, and protested nuclear power plants. Some lived without electricity or indoor toilets. No one seemed to have money. There were differences among the families—education levels and earning power—but I couldn’t see them then.

The island had conventional families, too, color-TV families with matching furniture, whose kids I was friends with. My closest neighbor, a petite dark-haired girl whom I adored, had a matching bed set and on one shelf, professional photographs of her brother and herself, posed studio shots of them as toddlers. My family had no such pictures in our house. Debbie and I made Rice Krispie® treats together with her mother who was always laughing, and one afternoon while I was there, her mother pulled out a new pair of hip hugger jeans from town for my friend to try on. I didn’t know what hip huggers were, but I knew they were cool, and I was impressed and envious that her mother would buy them for her.

Despite the lifestyle differences, no one as far as I know was warned away from anyone else. It wasn’t the way. And this, I think: it would have been embarrassing to warn a child away from the home of someone you knew, even if their circumstances were on the rough side of things. Or maybe it was that our parents didn’t think that much about it. But now I live in a small city, and I don’t want my daughter playing in a stranger’s apartment reeking of smoke, because, well, it’s seedy and maybe not safe. Or maybe it’s fine. But we know too much about abuse, alcoholism, and unlocked guns, and we worry in ways parents didn’t in the 70s about safety and supervision. And I have plenty of friends whose homes I like. But by choosing them, am I denying a friendship? How do you decide where your kids can play?

The answer feels more elusive to me than to my friends, who recall childhood warnings. “There was one house we weren’t allowed to go in,” one friend remembers. “My mom never told me why, but I think it had something to do with the older brother.” I had no such guidelines. Partly it was the small community, partly my parents raising me not to be conscious of money (I was), but also this: If someone’s house was off limits, I suspect it would have been ours.

There was the pot that circled among my parents’ closest friends. Also, the beer drinking, the parties my parents and their friends had, the lefty politics. But when I went to middle school, I decided our house was off limits to new friends because we were poor. I didn’t know it until then. I went from an elementary school of 30 to a middle school of 700, a ferry crossing and an 11-mile bus ride away, another planet, and when my mother asked me to bring home the reduced lunch form, I was appalled to see our family income well within the free range.

“Mom, are we poor?” I had thought “frugal.” True, unexpected costs could wreak havoc, and we ate a lot of beans, and not just because we liked them, but poor people were like the trailer family. Weren’t they?

“Well,” she said, “We don’t earn a lot of income.”

There’s a difference between not having much money and being poor. One implies a temporary state, out of which one moves at will, while the other is a fixed position on the social strata. Which were we? More importantly, what did others think? I didn’t feel deprived, but for the remainder of sixth grade, I silently ranked others according to their clothes, stories of family vacations, and Christmas gifts, trying to gauge where I fit.

Opening the door to our house, I can’t help watching Stacy for some sense of pleasure with the tidy living room, the hardwood floors, the sunlight streaming into the butter-yellow dining room. Her face is neutral, though, and the girls head for Leah’s room, where they play with babydolls for most of the afternoon. Later, doling out snacks, chatting with the girls, I catch myself again, self-consciously proud of the haven I can provide. Haven. Does Stacy think of our house as a haven? Can she read me? Does she feel patronized, as I would have in her shoes? I loved other people’s houses as a child, their carpet and central heating, but I would have bristled at any kind of pity.

When I was 12, the summer after 6th grade, my view of deprivation changed. My parents decided to build an addition onto our house, a much needed change for our family and within my dad’s carpenter expertise. “We’ll have to move out for the summer,” they announced. “We’ll use the guest cabin for sleeping, and we’ll put the kitchen in the woodshed.” The “guest cabin,” a one-room cabin with no plumbing or electricity, was tucked at the edge of our woods across the cow pasture. The woodshed was a three-sided structure where we kept cordwood and bicycles, attached to the back of our garage. We would have to use the outhouse full time, not just in August as was our custom when the well level dropped, and we would need to troop up the road to a neighbor’s shower until my dad figured out something more permanent. Still, these changes were short term, the prospect of a bigger house exciting.

But the remodel got off to a bumpy start with a denied building permit and a two-month ferry strike that curtailed any lumber deliveries. Worse, my dad had gutted our house in preparation, and now we lacked an essential. We camped in our yard for the summer and at night trotted through the pasture to the cabin. As we waited for the strike to end, my dad drew up new plans, but in November, with the frosts and no house, we moved our kitchen and couch into the garage and continued trotting through the dark to the cabin that would be a girls’ bedroom for two more years. I was mortified, and I never breathed a word of our living arrangement at school.

Stacy’s an easy guest, outgoing but polite. Better behaved than any of Leah’s other friends. Grateful, I can’t help thinking. She and Leah play comfortably all afternoon, and she thanks me for the snacks, thanks me again when I deliver her home. “I’ll see you at school,” she says to Leah. She is charming, someone I would invite again. But the friendship doesn’t take. Secretly, I’m relieved and embarrassed by my relief. I like Stacy, but what if Leah wants to play at her place?

With practice, I develop a rule for my kids when they ask to play with a new friend. “I have to meet your friend’s parents before you can play there,” I say, “But your friend is welcome here anytime.” It’s not like I’ve invented anything new. Everyone I know uses this rule, yet it feels foreign to me, ill fitting, and, of course, it begs the question: how does a friend come to your house if her parents don’t know you? What about you? And there’s this deep-down discomfort that lingers and to this day feels tricky. What if I know the parents and I still don’t want my kid going there? What then?


Leah’s in middle school now, a bigger and more diverse school than her neighborhood elementary, though not the alternate universe it was for me. At 12, she’s older and wiser to the world than she was at 6, and she’s seen a little of alcoholism, failed marriage, sketchy dads, and struggling single mothers. I like to think if she met a kid with a cabin and no indoor shower, she would accept her without judgment. I see glimpses of a deeper understanding in her. But she also lives a buffered life in a middle class neighborhood and knows less about marginal living than I did at the same age—I wonder sometimes if she’ll be less resilient to hardship when she’s older.

So far, she hasn’t been invited to an unfamiliar home, but I’m waiting. The discomfort I feel with deciding where she can play is still with me, but I worry more about unlimited computer access and the future of texting than a friend living close to the bone. My challenge these days is knowing when to grant independence, when not to, and how much, for I know the razor thin balance between fine and not, but how to see the difference? They can look so much the same. Yet independence must be given.

I see snapshots of what is to come—boys, cars, friends, dances, late nights, risky decisions. I will be lucky if I see the house at all. If only life were as simple as inviting a child over for an afternoon of play.

Joanna Nesbit is a freelance writer in Bellingham, Washington, where she lives with her husband and two kids. Her articles and essays have appeared in local, regional, and national publications, including FamilyFun, Wondertime, LiteraryMama.com, and ImperfectParent.com. You can catch her blogging about the parenting life at www.neighborhood-kids.com or learn more about her at www.joannanesbit.com
One Response to “Judging Poverty”
  1. Caroline McCann says:

    Loved this — what a wonderful reminder in these uncertain times to balance our own unesase with “poverty” with a dose of reality. Favorite line: There’s a difference between not having much money and being poor. One implies a temporary state, out of which one moves at will, while the other is a fixed position on the social strata.

    Good stuff!

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