Poor, Black, and Struggling

Poor, Black, and Struggling

by Jamillah Witt

College can be an eye-opening experience for everyone. It was a point of realization for myself. As a first-year student, I first heard the term “white privilege,” accompanied by its definition. While the realities of the term manifest themselves in many different realms of my life, the area that most clearly exemplifies white privilege is in the intersections of race and class while here at the University of Iowa. I don’t think people–professors and students alike–fully understand how mentally exhausting it is to be constantly reminded that college is not meant for poor, Black, and struggling people like me.

I knew what it felt like to be poor.

Growing up, my family had the essentials. A roof over our heads. Clothes on our backs. As a child these were the things that signified a sense of financial stability. I don’t remember a time in my childhood that I had to think about how hard my parents actually worked to keep the roof over our heads and the clothes on our backs. During that time, I didn’t have to. But as I got older, my father passed away, our household income decreased significantly, and I knew what it felt like to be poor.

We were a Black American working-class family in Iowa. There were four, and then five, children. My hometown of Waterloo, where the sheer number of Black and brown faces might lead you to (falsely) believe we outnumber the whites, has a Black history that is grounded in a working-class beginning. In the early 1900s, a large number of Black families were brought to the area to work as strikebreakers for railroads, and were segregated into what is now known as the “East” side of Waterloo. Decades later, during the late 1980s, my parents would migrate out of the Windy City with my two eldest sisters in search of greater job possibilities in the Cedar Valley.

My parents! Darlene and Robert Witt.

For as long as I can remember growing up, my mother was a CNA (certified nursing assistant). She worked forty-plus hours a week and pulled double, even triple shifts. My father would do the same at the local meat packing plant, working from 3 p.m to 3 a.m. Throughout my childhood, we moved from house to house, to apartment to house, because of rising rent prices and health hazards. Homes and apartments in the city were affordable, but they didn’t leave much leeway for luxury or leisure for the working-class.

And although my parents probably worked harder than anyone should ever have to, there were still times when we struggled. I can remember my mother throwing all the canned food we had into a giant pot and making a soup so that we could eat for a few days. This would be dinner until the next paycheck, or until my parents could go grocery shopping, at midnight, on the day we got our food stamps.

Yes, my parents worked their asses off, and yes, we were on food stamps.

Food stamps, I now realize, were important to my family’s well-being. Although I can’t remember when we first started receiving food assistance, I remember being cut off from them around the age of 10 or 11. This was when my mother began to pick up more hours at work, and my father was put on Social Security disability for a brain tumor.

To feed the family, we would now have to buy food stamps from friends and relatives–this being both “illegal” and absolutely necessary. If you’re unfamiliar, buying food stamps is much cheaper than just outright buying food. You could spend $50 on food stamps and get $100 worth of food, or spend $100 on food and get $100 worth of food. C’mon, this isn’t hard. It’s survival. There were five children who needed clothes, rent and utilities that needed to be paid, and my mother who could’ve used a break from it all. These are the unrealistic hoops, that people who are in need of government assistance, must jump through to “prove” they are “poor enough” to receive them. To qualify, my parents would often fabricate our household’s monthly income and spending by lowering the actual figures spent on things that the U.S. government deems “luxuries.” These would include cable, transportation, and items for school functions.

We would lie about our income to join the school’s free lunch program, to get in-school dental sealants, and to receive cavity checks. Without bending and breaking the “rules,” my parents would not have been able to provide important things for their children like food, healthcare, and general comfort.

C’mon, this isn’t hard. It’s survival.

There were times when we had small Christmases with gifts from local churches. The Christmas that sticks out most for me, my father had just had surgery to remove his brain tumor and was recovering in the University of Iowa Hospital. He wasn’t working anymore. We were receiving his Social Security disability checks and my mother was dividing her time between work and visiting him in Iowa City. That Christmas, she reached out to churches who were gracious enough to give us teddy bears and hats and gloves. As a middle-schooler, twelve years old, I remember feeling let down and disappointed, in a ‘this is it?’ kind of way. Up until then, my parents had always made an effort to get us one or two things that we really wanted for Christmas, but it didn’t happen that year because it couldn’t happen. Around this time, I began to realize the importance placed on material possessions, and to notice who had them and who didn’t.

Waterloo is, demographically, majority white (75 percent), Black (16 percent), and Hispanic (6 percent, Statistical Atlas), and racial segregation is practically undisguised. So, I began to see our small part of the city as “mostly Black.” That is, we saw and interacted with Black people on a consistent basis. Black children were who we played with after school and in the summer, whose parents our parents knew. But red-lining and occupational segregation in Waterloo, much like the rest of the United States, doesn’t allow for financial growth or wealth accumulation for minorities in the same way it does for whites. Poverty is normalized, and individuals are blamed for their instability in a system of institutional inequality.

My sisters and brother and me. From left to right: Myself, Aja, Ariana, Prince, and Ebony.

My parents expected each of their children to go to college, hoping to capture a piece of the “American Dream,” but everyday we grappled with the fact that poor and Black is not a demographic that was ever meant to make it that far. It’s exhausting to hear middle and upper-class white students talk like they have money to burn because I’m struggling to put myself through college. I am constantly reminded that “you shouldn’t be here,” because, financially, I’m just barely hanging on.

When I was in high school, I remember overhearing two white girls talk about Affirmative Action. “Why would I want an under-qualified Black man rescuing me, if I can have a qualified white man rescuing me?” I heard them say. I welled with anger at their conversation, but couldn’t put words to why I was feeling what I was. Now I know why their comments made me so upset. Today, as I walk around what is equally my campus, I hear and feel that exact same sentiment. There are white people who don’t want you here. Who don’t believe you’ve “earned it.” Who still believe that Black people get jobs through Affirmative Action, but don’t know white privilege from a can of paint.

In my final year, I am graduating soon. With this comes the question of, “Are you staying here or moving out of state?” from professors, students, and inquiring minds. Because of the stigma of poverty, I shy away from telling them I don’t have the funds to move out of the city, let alone to another state. I can’t stand the “broke college student” memes, because for me, it’s not a joke. It’s incredibly real. I can’t help but roll my eyes every time a professor “jokes” about students having their educations paid for by their parents. Mine aren’t and never could. Years of working and living paycheck to paycheck has left me with nothing to fall back on except anxiety about my financial future.

Poverty is normalized, and individuals are blamed for their instability in a system of institutional inequality.

I am one of those students, who upon graduation, fears I went to college in vain. I had no money, I’ll have no money, and I’ll be paying back loans for years to come. I worry when I read studies that say that students often end up with the same socio-economic status of their parents. That Black students graduating with a degree make less than white people without one–as a Black woman, this will affect me even more so.

Still, I am thankful that my parents never gave up on any of us. They did what they could with what they had. Finances aside, our home was filled with love and that is something I want people to understand. Poverty hurts. It’s impact is very real, and should never be diminished. But I was fortunate enough to have a strong foundation. One day, I hope to be this for someone else.

Jamillah Witt is a Gender, Women’s and Sexuality studies major at the University of Iowa minoring in Psychology. When she isn’t drinking coffee, iced-coffee with cream and sugar, she’s writing personal pieces about fatness and Black women’s hair. If she had to choose a favorite quote, it would be, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time” by poet and activist Maya Angelou.