Growing Up Poor
I read with interest this story today about the Canadian couple who have donated the bulk of their $10.9million lottery winnings to charity. They are quoted as saying Â “We haven’t bought one thing. That’s because there is nothing that we need,”Â and I love that. I love and respect it, and although I’m curious about why they did the lottery in the first place, it’s wonderful that they can be so selfless. Of course, I’m horribly cynical and a big part of me suspects they have this attitude because they’re already financially comfortable. Who knows.
I have “enough” stuff, but would go buy new, bigger, shinier, stuff if presented with millions in free money. Sure, I’d also give a lot to charity and improve people’s lives, but I’d buy a massive house with a games room and live on a yacht for a year. A yacht with a helipad. And my own chef.
The reason I’d go buy stuff instead of giving all the money away is because I grew up poor, and even basic things were out of reach. We lived in a state-owned house (in the UK called a “council house”, with all the stigma attached), with no upstairs heating, no phone, no car, and sometimes no electricity. The power came from a meter which had to be fed with fifty-pence pieces, and when there was no money, we’d either sit in candlelight, or my dad would illegally break into the meter and recycle the fifty-pences. This was a common occurrence in state-supported households of the late 1970s and 1980s, but what we lacked in material resources we made up for in fun, community and family values. We didn’t have money for holidays or days out, but we did have a pack of playing cards, and the hours spent with my family around the table playing Canasta, Whist or even Snap are some of my best childhood memories. As a family, we’d venture into nearby woods and play at being Hobbits on summer afternoons. You can’t buy that.
But, when you’re a kid, you don’t necessarily have the wisdom and perspective of old age. So while I was and am grateful for the really important family stuff, it was still galling to not be able to go on the school trip to France, or having to eat the horrible free school lunches, or having my school uniform paid for by a state grant or elderlyÂ distant relative. Not particularly out of peer pressure, I wasn’t that sort of kid, but just out of a general sense that relying on charity was not ideal.
On the plus side, I did get a good work ethic out of it, and a determination to escape my poverty roots and never return. I’ve worked very hard to have a life far from those roots, and although I’d still rather play a card game with family or friends, or hang out in the woods on a hot afternoon, I like to think the life I’ve worked for now is an improvement on the one my parents had at my age. I’m not sure if that sounds patronising or selfish. If it does, so be it. I feel how I feel.
As a result of having gone from poverty-class to middle-class (sorry USA readers, that’s a specific term in the UK that might not translate too well. Wikipedia defines middle-class as “typically including a university education, ownership of a sizeable family house, luxuries such as family skiing holidays, or even holding of a senior role in a profession or owner/director of a corporation”), I will notice when I’m acting spoilt, that I’m to a degree forgetting my “roots” in poverty. Examples of really dumb middle-class things I do are:
- buying and roasting a whole guinea fowl…for my cat
- getting cross when my cleaner moves my motion-activated air-freshener
- feeling disappointed when the farmer’s market has run out of my favourite imported cheese/artisan bread/luxury soap
I notice when I have these moments, and laugh at myself for what can be termed “middle class nightmares” or “first world problems” or “complete lack of perspective”, but it’s easy enough to fall into the trap of thinking that what should be a luxury is in fact a necessity.
I haven’t had a proper vacation for years (despite the Wikipedia definition), I don’t smoke, I barely drink alcohol, and my expenditure is very modest compared to many of my peers, so I don’t think I’m frivolous, and I work crazy hard so in theory I can do what I want.Â However, compared to many more worldwide, my expenditure is stupid and selfish, and the fact that I own all the consoles can’t be justified in light of global poverty. I do not know how to reconcile “things I like which help me relax and make my life feel nice” with “social conscience and awareness that a large chunk of the globe is just trying to get enough to eat”.Â I do a vast amount of pro bono or ‘at cost’ charity work, and I donate to global charities which have aims I support, but I don’t really make massive lifestyle sacrifices in order to help my fellow man. I’m OK with that; middle-class guilt is very common and I think I’m in credit with whatever serves skeptics for karma, but I still have a nagging feeling that what the lottery couple did was the right thing. In which case, why isn’t it what I’d do?