As a child I always presumed we were middle class just as I presumed most of America was middle class. The life I lived wasn’t that different from what I saw on TV. We lived in a house. I had a backyard. We exchanged presents at Christmas, occasionally visited fast food restaurants, and drove our own car instead of taking the bus.
Only as an adult can I look back and see we were blue-collar working poor. Yes, we had a house and a car and money for fast food and Christmas gifts, but my parents lived month to month, and had little to no savings.
For my entire adult life I always told myself that while we might have been borderline poor we weren’t so poor that we were houseless.
This is one of those times where the mind plays tricks. A life experience gets categorized and locked in one category and it takes some nudge or insight to reveal that it belongs in another category as well.
I turned eleven in 1976. That was also the year my father lost his job at the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas. It never occurred to me as odd that I didn’t know what my father did, and I felt special when I learned in third grade that in case of a nuclear attack Amarillo would be one of the first cities hit. This is because Pantex was a facility for building nuclear weapons.
I think, though I’m not certain, that Pantex went through a series of layoffs in the mid-1970s as the US transitioned to a post-Vietnam defense budget, and Pantex shifted from building bombs to disassembling them. Whatever the story, my father was out of a job in the spring of 1976.
At the end of the school year we (mother, father, me, and younger brother) moved from Amarillo, Texas to Lewisville, Texas (home of the Fighting Farmers!). There we stayed with a family that had once lived across the street from us in Amarillo.
As a child this struck me as strange, but I accepted what I was told. We were doing it as a cost-saving measure, and it was for the summer, and it would be fun!
I didn’t even realize my parents had stayed in touch with the family after they had moved. They had two children, a boy a little bit older than me, and a girl a little bit younger. We had played together when we lived across the street from each other.
That summer had its good points. The four kids got to camp out in a tent in the back yard, we made homemade ice cream, lots of play time. And bad points, the job search was clearly wearing on my parents, we overstayed our welcome, and the kids started bickering.
It is only this year I realized, oh yeah, that was a period of houselessness. We were a working-class family that had no savings and when hit with the financial blow of job loss, we moved across the state and counted on the generosity of friends. I’ve always thought of this as ‘the summer we stayed with the B–‘s’, not ‘the summer we were houseless’.
That summer, however, pretty much destroyed whatever friendship there was between the two families. It took longer to find a job than my father expected. The kids started squabbling. Two families living together under one roof led to lots of strain and stress on everybody’s relationships.
Around the time school started in the fall things came to a head when I started bawling over a relatively minor conflict with the older boy. We packed up and moved to an apartment in Farmer’s Branch.
This memory got churned to the top of my consciousness recently as I contemplated my relationship with financial precarity. I have deep, deep anxiety about money, and I bet it’s probably because I come from a family where money was scarce.
I don’t mention it among my current social circle, but I’m often gobsmacked when I hear about the difference between their “middle-class” childhood, and my “middle-class” childhood. The idea of attending a summer camp was never mentioned when I was a child, and there was no presumption I would attend college. The presumption was I’d join the military when it was time for me to move out. We didn’t do summer vacations. There were no road trips to the Grand Canyon or Disney.
I suppose this is also a story of tremendous luck. There were no major health issues in the family to deprive us of what financial stability we did have. No accidents or disasters. The worst of the financial stress was mostly hidden from the kids, and we got new clothes and school supplies every year. We made it through a lot better than many people in similar situations. So well, in fact, that it’s only now I realize how precarious our financial life really was.