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Stephanie S. Brooks Headshot

The Invisible Ceiling for the American Working Poor

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Stephanie Brooks

My life, since age 10, has been in a poor family. My mother was a high school dropout when my parents divorced. She had a realty license, but with two young children coming home after school to an empty house, she was unable to hold a job that couldn't guarantee her evenings off. We moved once a year, and my sister and I thought it was because my mother couldn't settle, but looking back on it, the rent must have been just too high for her.

I always lived in a house when my parents were together. Back yard, trampoline, pool. But I haven't lived in a house since sixth grade. Since then, it has been duplexes, apartments, and finally bedrooms with roommates in homes that I don't own. My mother went from part-time job to part-time job. I can remember her working three jobs at once when we were old enough to be home alone.

My mother is a lot of things, but lazy is not one of them.

While she worked, she got her GED and raised two children. She grew up in poverty much the same way I did, her parents divorced and she lived with her mother, who didn't work. Her mother had six children with her. I don't know how she managed.


My mother, me, and my sister the Halloween before my parents got divorced

It seems like once you get caught up in a poor family, there are invisible forces working against you from the start. My mother was on food stamps, and that was our grocery money for the month. Run out? Eat cans of corn. Maybe we got some things from the food pantry that month, eat that. Good food is typically not cheap. Right now I work at a grocery store and can see first-hand that if you eat healthy -- food that won't slowly kill you or make you chronically overweight -- you often pay 50 percent more than the people who subsist off of packaged food and microwaveable dinners. Some customers lament the cost of gluten-free, without realizing that some of my coworkers are supposed to be gluten-free but can't afford to eat that way. It's just not available to us. Often, if you have money for food and you're generally poor, you choose the cheapest item. That leads to obesity and sickness. Myself and millions of others have to regularly decide to "poison" ourselves with bad food in order to not go hungry.

I have been overweight since eighth grade. I feel like I don't have enough money to eat healthy. It feels entirely unattainable to me, and so I'm still overweight, which keeps me from getting other jobs due to prejudice and also leads others to think that I'm lazy without even getting to know me. I know this because I've seen it. I've seen people dial in interviews after seeing me, I've had customers at my store ask me why I'm "fat." My own family member makes fun of "fat" people on his Facebook and his friends join in. It's just something that's there and works against people who can't afford or don't have the resources to eat right.

My current job has benefits. I imagine that most people who work at grocery stores don't have benefits at all. I have sick time, holidays, and one week of vacation a year. Still, if I am sick more than nine times in a year (meaning I can't call out even once a month), I face consequences. Some coworkers have been fired this year because their children didn't have school and they were unable to leave them home alone.

When you don't have any money, people (corporations people, not people people usually) exploit your need to keep your job. Your job becomes needlessly difficult and you have to do the work of more people with less. A friend who works at another grocery store in a managerial position, and has for 20 or so years, was able to confirm that in his store alone they are working with roughly half the people that they had when he was hired in the early nineties. Those people are doing the same job, but they're doing the job for two people. Why not? They can't afford not to take the job, so the company might as well get as much out of them as possible. This is prevalent throughout low-paying jobs.

When I get home from work, generally I'm dead on my feet.

After working eight and a half hours behind a register, my feet are on fire and I'm generally limping around the house, unwilling to stand to make dinner. As a result, I don't cook often. If I do, it's something easy. Boxed stuff is my favorite because you can sit to boil the water and then you can sit to wait for it to cook, and there is minimal standing involved. If I'm in enough pain to avoid cooking, I am in enough pain to not be able to do chores around the house. As a result, I am often scrambling to get things done before work, or it doesn't get done at all, which means that when I get home I've now been on my feet for nine or nine and a half hours and I'm in that much more pain.

I could go to the doctor, to find out what's hurting me so badly. After all, my work provides insurance. However, the insurance I have costs 25 dollars to go to the doctor, and I make roughly $225 a week, which after rent leaves me $125 a week for savings and expenses. Where does the money go? Food, or to find out why I'm in pain? The answer is usually food.

I don't have my driver's license so now I walk everywhere. I find this a mixed blessing. I know my town very well, and the people in it. I get exercise almost every day, and my legs are very strong. However, all the doctor's offices are on the other side of town, which is about an hour and a half to walk. I could absolutely do it, but it would have to be on a day off.

Luckily, near me is a food pantry, so I can go there twice a month. I always need to go both times, but don't take everything. There are only so many cans of corned beef hash you can eat in a lifetime and live to talk about it. I'm sure I'm close to the limit. I volunteer at the food pantry, too, because not unlike many poor people I feel guilty for taking the food, even though I need it. If I'm helping, at least I can think of it as a give and take. When I wasn't helping, it would make me feel like I was stealing from people who need it more. Even though I work, I couldn't get by without their assistance. My manager is kind and gives me the same day off every week to volunteer both at the food pantry and the thrift store.

The thrift store manager, after a full day of ironing and folding and setting displays, tends to give me what I want for free. Without her, I'd have very few clothes. I have always felt that if someone gives to you you should give back. If I ever get a job where I'm paid a living wage, I will probably still volunteer at both places because the work they are doing really helps people, and nobody knows that better than I do.

I am not uneducated. I graduated from a good high school and went to a good college. I had to leave college early, and have not gotten back, just like millions of others. I have practical skills and I work hard every day. Despite what I have going for me, there doesn't seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel. I don't see myself digging out of the debt I'm in, both to college and to a credit card that has less than 1,000 dollars charged on it. I feel worried that when I have children, they won't be able to overcome the handicap that I will have given them. I feel worried they will get stuck where my mother and I both got stuck. Living below the poverty line. Seemingly for the rest of their lives.


Stephanie's story is part of a Huffington Post series profiling Americans who work hard and yet still struggle to make ends meet. Learn more about other individuals' experiences here.

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