Sunday, December 11, 2005

Season of Joy and Reflection

The Holidays are without a doubt, one of my favorite times of year. I love the cheer and goodwill that permeates the air amongst us. Even when we are older, we try to be good for goodness sake around this time. Then there is also the happiness of being with friends and family. We share food. We share gifts. We spend our time off together. Most people do not decorate their homes throughout the year, but will at least put up a Christmas tree. It's a wonderful time.

I must admin that for me it's also a time of reflection on seasons past. I remember the days of my childhood as a poor migrant and the slow shift to where I am today. I am by no means well off or even comfortable. Thanks to my wife's job, we are officially above the poverty line, although with tons of debt. Prior to this year, our combined earnings were less than $20k per year. I look forward to someday being middle class.

Still, I look back and see how poor we were and I am grateful for what I have. If you ever saw Johnny Carson, you know that you're supposed to ask, "how poor were you?" Well, we always had food stamps. Sometimes we had money, especially after coming back from Wisconsin where we did migrant work. Of course, we'd run out of money as we rounded the corner.

Our house was a wood framed home with painted plywood for the walls. At first, it was just a shell. We had no floor, it was just dirt. The shell sat atop cinder blocks. We filled the gap between the floor and the frame with bricks. We had no electricity, we used an oil lamp for light. In the winter, we had a fire in the middle of the house. We could do that because there were no interior walls and our dirt floor didn't suffer any damage from the heat. That was literally central heating. We didn't worry about carbon monoxide because the house was just a shell without insulation. We had plenty of ventilation, even with the windows closed. Our house basically blocked the wind and kept out the rain. It did nothing against the heat or the cold. Besides the fire, we kept warm by the use of many blankets. When we eventually got electricity, we shivered in the light. We bathed in a shed outside. We used an outhouse. We got water from a guy who would carry water in barrels in his pickup. He would empty his barrels into ours. We bought drinking water in 5 gallon containers. We heated our water on the stove and mixed it with cold water in a 5 gallon bucket. We bathed outside in the shed in hot and cold weather.

One year, I think it was in Junior High School, a Christian Missionary group, I think they were Baptist, helped our family by building a wood floor for us and covering our walls with plywood. This was a big improvement for us. We had walls. We had rooms. There was no insulation, so the summers were still hot and the winters were still cold, although slightly less than before. Eventually, we got indoor plumbing and installed a shower and toilet. We still had to heat water on the stove. Things continued like that until I graduated from High School.

I wound up going to The University of Texas at Austin for one year. I came back, married my girfriend. She and I lived with my mom in the same house. I put in the money to get us a water heater. My wife was pregnant; I decided to go back to UT to continue my studies. She stayed at the University of Texas-Pan American. Next Fall, after the baby was born, we moved to Austin together. Then we came back. We lived in the old house again. Our daughter spent her first two years there. I worked a job and went to school. My wife also went to school.

We helped a friend start up a business, it just never took off. So, I wound up working at a call center. At that time, my wife and mother teamed up and got us a mobile home. We had to move out of the old house because water would not run off in our neighborhood after hard rains. Everybody, of course, raised the level of their properties by filling in with soil. We did the same, but the house wound up being lower than the rest of the property. Consequently, the house would flood in heavy rain. After a few of those incidents, the floors were ruined, pests moved in in greater numbers, and mold was certainly around. So, life got much better with the mobile home. We finally had a warm home. We had proper bathrooms. We had AIR CONDITIONING!

My wife and I realized that we had to try to make it on our own, so we moved out. We first moved into a duplex not far from my mother's house. It was made of cinder blocks and basic finishing. It was extremely hot in the Summer and warm enough in the Winter. We stayed there for almost a year. My wife graduated from Pan Am. She could not get a job doing anything. She was overqualified for minimum wage jobs and did not have experience for other jobs.

Then we moved to a mobile home between Mission and McAllen. We went there because there would be no lease like we had in the duplex. It was basically month to month. It was cool enough in the Summer, but freezing in the Winter. It really needed a lot of work. Around this time, we decided we needed a better place.

My wife found an apartment complex that was just built north of Mission. We have been here since. It's comfortable. It's more expensive than the other places where we lived, but we don't swelter in the Summer and don't freeze in the Winter. We have plumbing and hot water. We have electricity. We could have cable, if we want. Soon after moving in, my wife started working. She has had three promotions in less than a year. So, now we are out of poverty.

Despite the hardship, the slow and difficult path we have had to get to this far, I feel fortunate. I have learned a lot. We have had family help us on our way. We have had friends. Government has been a mixed bag. Food stamps are a waste of time. If you don't make money, you get them. If you start to make money, they take them. If you are working full-time, it's not easy to get a day off to go see your case worker. Suffice it to say, food stamps suck. Medicaid is a big help and worth the effort. You will sleep better knowing that your children are covered, even if you aren't. Income sensitive apartments are good, except if you start to earn more. Then from one lease year to the next your rent can possibly go up considerably. Suffice it to say, rising out of poverty is a process of taking two steps forward and one step back. Every time you do a little better, you lose some kind of help. So, your net gain is very little. But you have to keep going, little by little. Our next step back will be having moved up a tax bracket. We earn more, the government takes more.

Student loans are good, but you have to keep in mind that once you are on them, you have to keep going to school until you finish. Don't take out loans and then drop out of college. It will be really difficult to pay them back without a degree, unless you find a very well paying job that does not require a degree. I'm not so fortunate. I need to get back in school to finish. For now, my wife and I need to save money to get me a degree. That's another thing. Now we can save money. We don't have to put all of our time and energy into mere survival.

So, I remember these things around this time of year. Another five years and the first quarter of my working life will be over. Will I come out with points on the board? We'll see. What ultimately matters is that I have points by the end of the game. I have a good family. I have prospects for the future. Even though we are no longer poor, one thing lingers. I still feel poor. I don't feel equal to those who have achieved middle class or higher. I need to stop feeling poor. In the meantime, I'm going to enjoy the season and reflect on our good fortune.
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