This is the third post in TheNation.com’s #TalkPoverty series—an effort to push a deeper conversation about poverty into the mainstream political debate. The series profiles people working on poverty-related issues, and lays out the questions they want President Obama and Governor Romney to answer. You can read the first posts here and here.
In 1967, five years before Jessica Bartholow was born, her father returned home from the Vietnam War a broken man. Although Richard Bartholow had survived a battle lasting several days right next to a network of underground tunnels, the experience severely traumatized him. An Army psychiatrist prescribed lithium shortly before he was discharged.
When he arrived back in the United States, military personnel simply dropped Richard off at the Oakland Commissary.
“There was no consideration for what that would mean for him or his family,” Bartholow told me. “There was no screening, or assistance in transitioning soldiers back to civilian life. There was no understanding that post-traumatic stress disorder can be passed on for generations—that it travels with the family and community.”
Richard lived on the streets for a couple of weeks before phoning his wife, Jacquelyn. She convinced him to tell her where he was and let her bring him home.
Civilian life proved difficult for Richard. Since he had never finished high school, he worked in construction. He also self-medicated by drinking. Rainy season was particularly bad—not only was there little work available, it was also the same time of year that he had originally shipped out to Vietnam.
“My dad would go into a real state that would end with the family in crisis almost annually,” said Bartholow.
As a result, her family moved almost every year between the time Jessica was 5 and 12.
“Unlike today, there weren’t credit scores that resulted in an inability to get housing, so we’d just move on to the next house when we couldn’t pay rent,” she said.
Jacquelyn always worked—as a bookkeeper, salesperson, clerk and donut maker—and then from home when Richard’s condition deteriorated severely.
“He couldn’t leave the house for years, and she had to be there to prevent suicide,” said Bartholow. “She took up laundering and ironing clothes. She did it throughout my high school years to pay the rent and keep things going. But it’s not an easy job, it doesn’t pay well and there were always all kinds of chemicals.”
Like most people in poverty today, Bartholow’s family moved in and out of poverty—sometimes below, and sometimes a little above the threshold.
“We were never middle class,” she said. “We vacillated between poverty and working class—there used to be a distinction in the ’70s and ’80s. I’m not sure there is much of one today with the proliferation of low-wage jobs people are trying to get by on.”
Bartholow and her older sister, Linda, had no books, one pair of shoes each for the year and clothes from the thrift store that her grandmother bought for them on Christmas or birthdays.
“But you don’t really notice those things when you are a kid,” said Bartholow. “The only thing that is truly an experience—that you don’t forget—is hunger. Food is something you notice that other people have, and you don’t.”