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What it’s really like to raise a child on the poverty line

Katherine Clover

For the most part, my little family has a beautiful, happy, fulfilling life, which I love. I chose to have a child in part because I wanted to share the richness of my life with a brand new person. But that life also has its challenges—my partner and I are raising our child astride the poverty line.

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Talking to a friend about our situation I say: “Sometimes...sometimes I wonder if my son will hate me for raising him without enough money.” I do that half laugh that we do when we’re trying to make light of the hard parts of our lives. “Don’t you worry about that,” she says, kindly, “he won’t. You’re raising him with plenty of love and that’s all that matters.” I want to believe her. I want to believe that my parenting (and my spouse’s) is so superb that my child will be completely insulated from the shame and fear associated with coming from a lower income household. I had a child—not knowing how hard his birth year would be on us financially, but certainly knowing we weren’t about to attain middle-class status—in part because on some level I do believe love is enough. It takes a lot more than money to give someone a happy childhood, and in that respect, our son doesn’t want for anything.

But life isn’t a Disney movie, and having “plenty of love” isn’t the only thing that matters. Maybe you don’t need a ton of money, but you do need some to get by in a capitalist society, and adding a third member to our family certainly increases that need. Opinions about how much money is enough vary widely, but the the federal government considers anything under $20,160.00 per year for a family of three to be “living in poverty”. We hover right around the line. Last year, we were definitely below it. So what will the impact on my child be? There have been many studies tracking how poverty affects children. According to The Child Poverty Action Group, children from poor backgrounds lag behind in all areas of education, and by the age of three are already nine months behind their more affluent peers. It isn’t totally illogical for me to wonder if my child will grow to resent his background. I know, because I myself went through a period of resenting my parents for their financial status. We weren’t poor, but we had moved to a suburb with a very nice school district and most of the kids I interacted with came from families with more money than mine. As a teenager, I was angry about that difference. Did I hate my parents? No, and my anger has long since evaporated. But I definitely judged them harshly, and at 16, I felt that they should have had more foresight, that they should have attained a certain income level before having me. As an adult, I hate admitting I ever felt that way. Class analysis has changed the way I look at the world, and I can no longer cast my parents as the bad guys simply for not being wealthier. I don’t believe that parenting should be a luxury reserved for the middle class and above.

My son is still under a year old. Though we’ve struggled financially since his birth, he is well cared for and has more toys than he needs. Each night, I nurse him before my wife and I put him in his crib, and it’s become one of my favorite moments of the day. I can be something of a worrier, and I can move too fast, but for twenty minutes every day I lay in the dark with someone who needs me and loves me. I breathe deeply and feel my pulse slow down, because I believe that he can feel any tension I have in my body. I hope to teach my child to not let stress and worry overtake him. I hope that I can counter some of the negative effects of life at the poverty line by demonstrating to him that he doesn’t need affluence in order for his needs to be met. And to show him, by example, that you can walk through adversity calmly. If I had waited until we were better off, I wouldn’t have had him. This particular him who I love. Whatever our worries about the future, they don’t have to rule our present. Isn’t that a lesson worth learning young?

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I want to believe that my parenting is so superb that my child will be insulated from the shame associated with coming from a low-income household.

Katherine Clover

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