Imagine this: Every year during the Great Recession of 2007–09 there were nearly 4 million home foreclosures. In that period, with job losses mounting, nearly 15 percent of American households were categorized as “food insecure.” To many of those who weren’t foreclosed upon, who didn’t lose their jobs, who weren’t “food insecure,” to the pundits writing about that disaster and the politicians dealing with it, these were undoubtedly distant events. But not to me. For me, it was all up close and personal.
No, I wasn’t foreclosed upon. But my past never leaves me and so, in those years, the questions kept piling up. What, I wondered daily, was happening to all those people? Where were they going? What would they do? Could families really stay together in the midst of so much loss?
I was haunted by such questions and others like them in the same way that I remain haunted by my own working-class childhood, my deep experience of poverty, of want, of worry. I wondered: How were working class families surviving the never-ending disasters in what was quickly becoming a new gilded age in which poverty is again on the rise?
As a writer and novelist, I found myself returning to the childhood and adolescence I had left behind in my South Bronx neighborhood in New York City. I thought about those who, like me once upon a time, had barely made it out of the difficulties of their daily lives only to find themselves once again squeezed back into a world of poverty by the Great Recession. How that felt and how they felt raised lingering questions that would become the heart and soul of my new novel, Every Body Has a Story. The book is finished, printed, and in stores and the Great Recession officially over, or so it’s said, but tell that to the increasing numbers of poor families scrabbling to hang on in a world that refuses to see or hear them.
What Does Poverty Feel Like to a Child?
President Trump, a man who never knew a moment of need in his life, and the politicians in his thrall regularly use the term “working class” to mean only those who are white, only those who, they believe, will support their acts. Let me be clear: The working class consists of people who are multi-racial and multi-ethnic, immigrant and native born. If you grew up where I did, you would know the truth of that fact.
And here’s a question that’s never asked: What does poverty actually feel like, especially to a child? I can attest to the fact that it sinks deep into your bones, into the very sinews of your life and never leaves you. Poverty is more than the numbers that prove it, not at all the way the pundits who write about it describe it. And for those Americans who are just one paycheck, one sick child, one broken-down car away from falling into its abyss, poverty lasts forever.
I was a serious child in an impoverished home, in a poor, working-class, diverse neighborhood in a society that valued women less than it did men. I was born to an immigrant father who worked in a leather factory and a mother who took care of children, her own and those of others. I was brought up in the South Bronx, the third of the four children who survived the six born to my mother. With the arrival of each new child, something of material and emotional value was subtracted from the other children’s wellbeing in order to support the new arrival.