On Cory Booker and Poverty’s Psychic Costs.


via Selbe B/Flickr, CC 2.0.

I can’t get into Cory Booker‘s weeklong food stamp challenge the way I’d like to, but it’s important to remember that all of the caveats about this exercise really matter. Because when we’re talking about poverty — especially long-term poverty — the devil really does dwell in all those inconvenient footnotes and qualifiers. You can’t neatly partition off hunger from stuff like inadequate housing or electricity or health care or safety or education. All those things are happening in concert and informing each other; their effects are cumulative. It’s hard to look for work or pay attention in school when you’re malnourished. It’s hard to keep food refrigerated if you can’t pay your electric bill. It’s hard to keep your food your food if you live with other people who are hungry too and who maybe can’t be trusted. My ex-girlfriend’s mother, a retired assistant principal in Detroit, once told me that school attendance would jump in the winter months; it was the only place the kids knew for sure that there would be food and heat.

Booker did this for a week and complained about the hunger pains. And that’s some real ish. But the accretion of poverty’s psychic costs doesn’t end when your belly is full. We know now that poverty saps people’s abilities to do effective cost-benefit analysis in all types of decisions; poor people already have to make too many of those least-terrible-option decisions each day, which means they simply choose not to make some decisions at all. Booker is a Rhodes Scholar and the mayor of a major American city. It’s hard to overstate how much it matters that there was always a discrete end to this for him, that he waded into the tunnel with the light at its end clearly visible, and that there were constraints on the tolls it could exact on him. Poverty isn’t just economic. It’s existential.

My good friend Latoya Peterson said something pretty simple a long time ago that has nevertheless stuck with me: you never get over being poor. We talked about this during one of our long, super-candid walks, and she confessed that she always felt like the prospect of homelessness was always stalking her, even now, as a well-connected, middle-class adult. She was the first person I’d ever heard say it aloud, but I shared the same weird, well-earned neuroses.

I remember my mom being embarrassed once when i noticed that she was using food stamps to pay for lunchmeat at Irv’s, the corner store around the corner from our house. She was doing what she had to do, exercising an option that would make our lives less fraught, and she was embarrassed, because we judge people for making this choice, for needing help. And I remember not having hot water at the crib at all during high school, and our stove not working. In order to bathe, we’d have to put a pot of water on a hot plate and lug it, gingerly, upstairs to the bathroom. For years, I took shallow baths that were either frigid or scalding. One of the best parts of going away to college for me was that I could take long showers, every day, in my dorm if I wanted.

That was a long time ago. But I still take long showers.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • One of the most profound things I learned in graduate school came from a student who came into my office crying because she was getting a B-. During our talk, I found out she was commuting several hours to and from campus *and* working a full-time job in addition to her full-time course load. No dorm life b/c she couldn’t afford it, and no financial aid because she wouldn’t take loans. When I asked her why, it turned out that her mom had been homeless with her for a while and she was determined never, ever to borrow money.

    Anyway, I ended up telling her she should be damn proud of that B-, because I doubted many other students could manage to even *pass* the class with her workload.

    It really opened my eyes. I don’t know what happened to her–we had lunch (on me) shortly before I left to take the job in Canada. I hope she graduated and went on to a good life and financial security.

    • Wow. I hope she graduated, too, Dr. Bitch.

  • hystericalblackness

    “And I remember not having hot water at the crib at all during high school, and our stove not working. In order to bathe, we’d have to put a pot of water on a hot plate and lug it, gingerly, upstairs to the bathroom.”

    I also have those memories. Huge pots of water on the stove so we could bathe.

    And kerosine heaters that made me deathly ill so my mother stopped using them.

    Cold. Try doing homework when you’re freezing.

  • S

    My aunts talk about growing up poor, having to put cardboard in their shoes during the winter. Now they have houses stacked with shoes. Find a pair you like? Buy them in every color!

    But while they try to run away from these memories, some of them are in fact heading toward poverty. Deep in debt, on the edge of bankruptcy, losing their homes while they keep spending. It comes from a deep pain that they haven’t been able to deal with in a less financially destructive way. Not sure what the fix is at this point.

    • I can relate to this. My mom didn’t want us to grow up the way she did. We never had the lights cut off or anything but we surely had red notices coming every month. I never wanted for anything but as I got older it was because my mother was in massive amounts of debt trying to keep our head above water.

  • robin

    One of my favorite lines in this post is:
    “poor people already have to make too many of those least-terrible-option decisions each day, which means they simply choose not to make some decisions at all.”

    So familiar to me as a person who grew up in poverty and truly explains how the problems of the poor are often compounded. And as you say, it has stuck with me. It was with with me as a graduate student and has stayed with me even after having jobs with good benefits. I also had professors like the woman who wrote the first comment who just didn’t get how my situation as a broke, first-generation college student was so different from that of the other students.

  • Nai

    the specter of poverty haunts even those who have no recollection of it. I am the descendent of impoverished grandparents, my dad lived in and out of shelters from before he met my mother until long after I was brought onto this earth and I was partly nourished from WIC—thankfully during those months and years of childhood when you don’t know what shame should taste like. Lineage is long and it still sticks with me though I know I’ve been lucky to have grown up around fam that viewed the trappings of food, shelter, and education as a right rather than a privilege. For my mom, retirement inches near. It’s a time she should look forward too, often has her more concerned about her economic well being than normal. She has worked in education for decades and as a result, should enjoy some security thanks to union dues, yet she still talks of our livelihood as though only a very thin thread is binding it all together. She’s fond of saying it only takes is a missed paycheck, a costly accident, or an unfair eviction tactic to put her and effectively my younger sis on the street. I’ve always rolled my eyes, antagonized her negative thinking and reassuringly repeated that we’d be fine. “ma, we’re not poor” or “we’ll take care of you.” Secretly though, I’m not sure how we’d manage to get along without my single working mom who is still helping me in my quest for “independent” living. As much as she would like to rest when she retires, I’m not sure she’ll be able to.

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  • Man, listen. I’ve had to boil water so many times in my life…smh. Mice, roaches. Cats smoking weed & crack in the hallway. Stepping over blunts & crack vials DAILY. I’m lucky that I’ve generally been good at compartmentalizing.

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  • thanks for this, I had been struggling with my feelings on Cory Booker’s challenge and I think your post captures the implications of it brilliantly.

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