Lessons Learned From Government Cheese

I grew up poor. For much of my early childhood we were at poverty level. My parents split when I was four, so my mother – age 22 at the time – was left with three young kids and a mortgage on a house she had borrowed money to get in the first place. She hadn’t graduated high school – instead she took the California high school equivalency exam – so she worked at a gas station where, on two separate occasions, she was robbed at gunpoint. After the second time she went to find a filing job with the county court system, where she eventually (when I was a teen) worked her way up to middle class wages.

Our family relied on my maternal grandmother for support, in spite of the fact that she was on disability and was only making it thanks to a man who couldn’t say no. My grandmother took this man for everything he had in order to care for us – his car, his money, his house. If it wasn’t for this man who was used, abused, and driven into bankruptcy, there is no way our family would have survived.

My grandmother was always very focused on money. She herself was born in Oklahoma at the tail end of the Great Depression; I can only guess her parents passed on their experiences from that time to her. My grandmother carried the idea that women didn’t get ahead by working – they had to use their bodies. In her mind, all actresses slept their way to the top. And she often said that she “should have married a rich old man” so that he’d die and leave her his money. One of my clearest memories is when I told my grandma I wanted to be an artist and she said, “Artists don’t make any money until after they’re dead.”

Pursuing a career in something you liked to do was a luxury that my family didn’t even acknowledge as being a possibility – unless, of course, it was obtained in some disreputable manner.

At my grandma’s co-opted house, floor to ceiling cabinets held more canned goods than we could eat. There were two refrigerators and a deep freezer. An extra pantry was added to the hallway and I remember gazing up at the shelves full of cereal boxes each morning. There were at least twenty boxes in there at a time – more than enough to feed three children under the age of five.

Our dinners came in tiny portions, of which included over-cooked meat (we couldn’t afford food poisoning!) and things from a can. I was a teenager before I learned that canned soup should have water or milk added to it; somewhere along the way my grandma must have internalized conservation of those precious liquids. On more than one occasion we used powdered milk with our cereal (which is more like milky water), and I never had a fresh vegetable unless I went to a friend’s house for dinner. My friend’s parents marveled at how much I ate when I visited – I was tiny, after all, and didn’t hit 100 lbs until I was a teen.

Some of our food came from public assistance. My family stood in line at a local church once a month for “government cheese,” a gigantic block of bright orange American cheese, along with a few other staples through a program subsidized by the government. I had subsidized lunches at school and the only baked things we got were the “end of life” goods on clearance at the Hostess bakery.

American cheese loaf

Even with all of this, I knew I had it pretty good – better than many (especially those kids in the Sally Struthers commercials). I had a house, even if I shared a room. I had clothes, even if they were bought on credit cards and my cheap shoes melted on the blacktop at school in the Sacramento heat. We had television (a second-hand working one on top of a dead one, naturally) and eventually we were able to get things like Nintendo, even if we weren’t early adopters. I’ve never been to Disneyland, but we had plenty of fun at our local Fairytale Town.

I focus on money a lot as an adult, in no small part due to my upbringing. The only money-related thing I’ve inherited is worry over finances. It eats me up when I owe money – financial stress takes me right back to my childhood and that desperate feeling of having to rely on others to get by.

I often have to remind myself that I have a great job, a two-income household, and a beautiful (yet affordable – for this area) home. I can pay my bills, even if it will take me longer than I’d like and I’ll have to pay interest. I can cancel cable if I need to, or offload a bunch of unnecessary stuff that I’ve got lying around. If I need money, I can easily get it. In fact, if it comes down to it – I know exactly what to do to survive on a tiny fraction of what I am surviving on now.

Still, that feeling of being right on the edge of disaster is ever near and less than comfortable. I can’t shake the lessons I learned from growing up poor.

12 thoughts on “Lessons Learned From Government Cheese”

  1. Oh I SO hear you. Even before the bottom fell out for my family, even back when I was making an amazing living in the film industry with savings and no debt…even when I was TOTALLY secure – I was always crouched, waiting for the poverty from my childhood to find me again. Great post.

    1. It’s really sad to me how much space it takes up in my brain. I worry that I will get fired every time my boss calls me into his office (which usually ends up being “will you go grab me a coke?”). We just bought a house, which is unbelievable enough to me, but now I’m worried that one of us will lose our job and be unable to pay the mortgage. When we were renters, we could always move to a cheaper place…not so much anymore!

  2. I think retaining those lessons we learned early on, while letting go of the fears, can benefit us and give us a map to a different way of living.
    You’ve got me thinking about what my own long held beliefs are and how they’re impacting my life. I’d better go watch some trash tv to mitigate all this thinking;)

  3. I like what Joules said about using the lessons, but letting go of the fears. Because of my own childhood, I, too, worry about finances way more than I need to. And I need those same reminders. And I completely get that feeling of being on the edge — that all it takes is one bad day, and BOOM, over the cliff. Blech. Guess I need to work a little more on those reminders that I’m doing okay 🙂

  4. I have horrible money anxiety. It’s where I turned my anxiety after I recovered from my eating disorder. I’ve gotten a lot of good from cognitive reframing. I try to turn every money fear on its head. It’s tough, though. In the end, money is just paper we trade for stuff.

  5. I feel you on this one. It was especially apparent in college – I went to an Ivy League, where most of my classmates were either upper-middle class or rich. I was the odd-ball for living in a cheap apartment in the bad area of town and skimping on food. Basically, for trying to save money instead of relying on parents or student loans. But in the end, I made it through college without help from my parents and without taking out student loans (I was very lucky to get excellent financial aid) And at the end of the day, I’m happy – I have money in the bank and equity in my house,

    1. I think what I forgot to mention is that I also grew up really poor – to feed the family, my parents raised chickens, cows, and pigs. I don’t have much experience with government cheese but I do have a lot of stories of seeing my mother head out to the chicken coop with an axe and drinking milk straight from the cow. 🙂

  6. This was a really fantastic post. I’m so glad BlogHer spotlighted it and you had the courage to hit publish on this one. There are lessons we all carry from childhood, and things that haunt. I’m grateful that yours carry with them the knowledge and preparedness they do. *HUG*

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