05/27/2016 12:08 pm ET Updated May 28, 2017

Understanding Poverty From the Inside: Home and the Neighborhood

This is the third installment in a series: "Understanding Poverty from the Inside."
You can imagine asking an open-ended question about specific moment in time would provoke multifaceted and complex responses. Through the process of storytelling, layered impressions of the barriers and challenges emerged and living and stories of living day-in and day-out in poverty illuminated the enormity of what these women had navigated. These narratives of their lived experiences convey intricacies that could not be fully captured in an interview or survey, telling stories that go beyond definitions, statistics, and stereotypes. Their testimonios gave a subjective and intimate view of their thoughts and feelings about familial circumstances, poverty, stereotyping, and societal views of Latinas, the poor, single parents, immigrants and women.

(For brief biographies of the study's participants and details about the criteria for choosing participants, see the first installment in this series,

The difficulties these women and their families faced were abundant; indeed, they felt that something was always looming over them. The burden of their life circumstances weighed on their minds, their bodies, and their spirits. Reflections on their experiences with poverty in their homes, schools, and communities yielded stories of the myriad and formidable challenges they faced on a daily basis. The difficulty surrounding this topic was palpable; many of the women reported never having discussed "being poor" with anyone -- some had not even revisited the topic with their own parents.

During their testimonios, I asked the participants if they had ever experienced a signal incident or epiphany: "Was there a moment or event that brought your poverty right in front of you?" My reasoning for this prompt was based on frequent comments or references participants made to not knowing how poor they were until they left their neighborhood, school, or community. I noted that often the contrast brought blatant differences to bear. For me, arriving in Whittier at the age of 10, grassy knolls, perfectly landscaped lawns, and trimmed trees offered a stark difference from the environment I had grown up in in the inner city of Chicago: the barren dirt fields we used as playgrounds were riddled with weeds and plants hid discarded bags of chips, candy wrappers, and cigarette butts.

For some of these other women, a particular person had shamed them, announcing that they were different -- a laugh, a stare, or a sneer brought their reality crashing down. Receiving food stamps was formative, solidifying that their "paper money" was different from the green bills their peers used. Vanessa knew that her family did not spend any money on anything that was considered "luxurious." She stated, "I don't even think I knew I was poor, like to be honest, I really didn't realize. I knew that we didn't spend money that other people did, like on dance classes."

For her part, Luna stated,

I remember growing up and realizing that there had to be a way out. Why does he have to work all the time? ... I didn't have words. I didn't really understand what was poor or poverty or anything like that ... I knew something was different. It was probably about age 8 or 7.

For other women, being poor meant being secretive. It was apparent from an early age that receiving help from the government was perceived as a negative thing and should not be discussed. Both Carmen and Consuelo shared that they were very aware of the stigma associated with being a welfare recipient.

Carmen remembered:

My mom and we learned to not disclose that information because of the stigma and criticism that people had for families that were collecting [government aid], sort of like the sense that we were a burden on society and that tax dollars paid by other people were pretty much providing our income.

Consuelo stated:

I don't think we were ever on welfare. But it was just because they were always working and kind of like you don't want to live off the government in a way because you'd rather work for it, I think.

Monica offered the following:

I actually didn't realize that I was poor until like I got to college and my roommate -- I had two roommates. One of them, her dad was like a diamond distributor and I was like, "That's a job?" And then one of my other neighbors, her dad was like superintendent of the [inaudible] Unified School District in Santa Cruz. And they used to like fly up all the time and bring her food and goodie bags. I used to feel sad like; my mom doesn't even visit me. My mom doesn't send me anything. She doesn't love me. Yeah, feeling like oh, maybe my mom doesn't even love me. She doesn't visit me. She doesn't send me fancy things like this, like clothes or stuff. But you know, she didn't have the money. She couldn't take vacation. She couldn't afford a flight.

Violeta remembered distinctly:

I had totally been excelling at school. I had done so good at the university. I graduated with honors and the whole bit. I get to Stanford and it was the first time in my life that my identity of what it meant to be poor and undocumented just like was put in front of the mirror and in front of me on a daily basis ... The kind of wealth that I encountered at Stanford, I only thought existed in books or in movies.

Carmen stated, "By the time I was in the fifth grade I felt very ashamed of being Mexican because of the poverty. Because to be Mexican where I grew up meant you were poor."

Some of the women had known at a very young age that they were "different." They were conscious of family circumstances, ones that -- ideally -- parents keep from children so as not to burden them with "adult issues." Not all participants had experienced the innocence of not knowing, and some reflected on the ambiguity of their situations perhaps knowing that their families had received help, but being unsure about the extent of that help. Some participants were not sure what their family had been eligible for or what their family had or had not received.

As she indicated, Monica had struggled with wanting her mother to be like the other mothers; she, too, wanted visits, "goodies," and "food." Her roommate's circumstances were a bitter reminded of the financial limitations in her life because her mother "didn't have the money, couldn't take a vacation ... couldn't afford a flight." Her grief was obvious as she equated being visited and sent "things" with being loved. Carmen tied together race and class as if one equaled the other -- an equation many of the participants made.

Discussions of poverty often involved uncertain memories, especially when participants tried to describe what poverty looked like. Participants responded to abstract notions of poverty with uncertainty, as if trying to recreate a feeling, situation, or specific experience; nevertheless, a clear identifier for the participants was what they called home.


Participants described where they lived during childhood. Descriptions ranged from tracked housing in a middle-class neighborhood to the laundry room of a family friend. It was very soon clear that any standard definition of home did not apply to all of these women and their families. Instead, having a home might have meant living with extended family, staying in converted garages, or moving frequently to reside with different friends. Any notion of a familiar, stable space, one of comfort and safety, was supplanted by realities of unpredictable, transient, and often overcrowded living arrangements. The following examples clear illustrate some the challenges endured by the poor in relation to "home." First, Monica stated, "Throughout my experience from preschool all the way through, we moved a lot just because I think it was part of being poor ... [and] our instability of not having a place to live."

Vanessa recalled:

It didn't appear that we were poor, per se, but we went without a lot so that we could have [a house] ... there were kids in my neighborhood that had both, they have the house, have a running car and have dance classes, have all the fancy school supplies or new clothes. It was a new neighborhood, new houses ... There were very few people of color that lived in that area, and a lot of it was like single family, like white couples that maybe were just having kids, starting to have kids. Yeah, I would say like around the time we moved in, it was like that, but it definitely changed after the early '90s because you see the end of the Cold War, you see this transition of white flight. Boeing manufacturing plant closes.

Monica remembered:

It was hard, there were like ten of us in this house, and I remember having to go to the bathroom and read to study because I had nowhere to really go. But normally, I would have gone to a coffee shop or like anywhere to sit down and read, but uncle was so paranoid that after 8:00, he put the alarm on the house and you couldn't go in or out. It was like a prison. That's what it felt like.

Conversely, Consuelo recalled that her family's home was used as a base for other family members and friends who worked the fields:

So at first, it was like this tiny, little rooms ... we always had friends from Mexico who came and worked the fields, too, so they stayed with us ... I remember ... I think it was like four or five of us in one little room, like bunk beds, and I think two of my brothers slept in one bed, then the other one slept up there, and then I slept on another bed right next to them ... the other room was taken by the friends or relatives who came to work ... later, my dad extended the room where we all slept, and there came a point where I don't know if it was because we got older, or I got older as a daughter, so he decided he didn't want ... to have people over anymore.

Maria recalled her first home after having arrived from Guatemala with her family:

We lived 14 people in a two-bedroom house, just for like maybe like three months because that's when we just got [here]-On the living room floor because it was like weird because it was a closet and then we slept outside of that closet on the floor ... other people slept in the living room. Oh, in that house, it was a closet. It was pretty big, and so that's where my dad and my mom slept. Uh-huh, on the floor or on the sofa.

Carmen said:

I was always raised through the time that I was 13, we lived in a garage. We never had a formal home. But to me, because it wasn't a house, it didn't mean that it wasn't our home and so I never associated that with being poor.

In an attempt to gain a better understanding of where the women lived, the neighborhoods in which they walked on a daily basis, their surroundings, and the resources that had been available within their communities, I provided each participant with a map of the address she provided. The maps covered a two-mile radius. My intention was to use the "navigational map" as a guide and tool to capture the nuisances of the neighborhood. I imagined a walk through their lives, block by block, as they, say, made their way to their best friend's house. I wanted to know where their school was, where they played video games, bought a pack of bubble gum, where their friends lived. I wanted to map their experiences. Unfortunately, this exercise proved unproductive. My attempt to paint a picture of their neighborhood via a "navigation map" that would complement their narratives served as a poignant reminder that the aim of this dissertation was to let them tell their story not to direct and externalize their memories and lives on a map. Neither an ink trail nor a photo could accurately represent what their words so poignantly described. Still, some participants honed in on details of their neighborhoods -- places, objects, sights that had come to embody their childhood experiences. Consuelo described the neighborhood store: "[It was a] store called Coronet or like you could buy other stuff. They had clothes. Just any other -- you can buy a gift to go to a party, you would go to Coronet."

Maria referred to the small Korean markets that could be found in abundance around Los Angeles especially before the 1992 Uprisings:

Korean stores like grocery stores where you find -- I don't know how they're called. I just knew like it was on the corner or my mom saying, "Go to the Korean store and get like something else," because it was cheaper there or whatever. Like that's one of the things that you know how to shop because you have to.

The matter-of-fact way that the women spoke of having homes with limited space and overcapacity offered little sense that they had experienced feelings of deprivation about privacy and space. As they described their homes and communities, their tone, demeanor, and manner of speaking normalized their situation. Hearing these descriptions, I was urged to offer a prompt, asking, "How would someone else describe your neighborhood?" I remembered my own experience as a community college student in Chicago. My classmates would ask me, "Where do you stay?" I thought the question was odd and should have been, "Where do you live?" After I tried to correct them, I thought more about the context of the questions and reflected on my housing situation at the time. I was, in fact, "staying" on the couch at my cousin's house with her two young children and husband. I had recently moved to their couch from my other cousin's couch with his wife and infant child. The language of "staying" came to embody the itinerant, reliant aspects of poverty and housing. It thus became clear from the participant descriptions that the "insider" position I held assured them that there was no judgment of their circumstances.


To the prompt "How would someone else describe your neighborhood?" the participants offered a range of responses.

Consuelo struggled to find the words to describe her neighborhood and community, explaining:

I think they would definitely see a big difference from what they're used to here, and it's very rural. It's like two or three streets out here, and then everything else is a field. So it's where like if you pass through there, you could see the poverty. I don't even know what it looks like, but it just looks really, really bad.

As she pointed to a map of her neighborhood, Consuelo continued by delineating what was defined as a "good area": "Here are the railroad tracks. So pretty much if you lived on this side, you're doing pretty good." For her part, Maria offered the following definition: "If you have somebody who has appreciation for new and diversity, then I think there's a lot going on. If they didn't have appreciation for diversity, then they would say, they would be scared of being there." Maria seemed to intellectualize the different potential responses, so that one would either experience "appreciation for diversity" or "fear" from being around difference. Monica provided a clear picture of a neglected urban space: "Like the streets are kind of not repaired. The street signs, some of them have fallen down and you don't see street names. Yeah, so I remember there was a lot of conflict with the Mexican Mexicans."

Consuelo remembered being praised about where she lived:

So we moved to the other side of town, which is supposedly the nicer part where most of the white people live on that side. So I remember how I went to school. And I changed my address. So I took a note saying that I had changed my address, and I gave it to the teacher so that they would change it in my records. So my teacher made a big old announcement about how my family had moved.

Some participants offered clear examples of how an outsider would view the poverty of the areas in which they had grown up. The delineation of train tracks separating the "good" from the "bad" neighborhoods made clear boundaries between them and us. Some participants offered specific references to urban disrepair (broken down street signs), whereas others offered only abstract "you know it when you see it" assessments -- like Consuelo, who explained, "You could see the poverty. I don't even know what it looks like, but it just looks really, really bad" [emphasis mine]. The rural setting was difficult to put into words, but was considered "bad." Consuelo's lack of words for describing her neighborhood spoke to the degree to which poverty is also a mode of experiential deprivation, a subjective experience of not having material resources or access -- an experience itself defined by lack. What about the poverty could one see? The constraints -- physical, emotional, and material -- were demonstrated clearly. The lens through which these woman saw their lives and the memories they held about them were less cut and dry.

Carmen commented on how outsiders might have viewed and described her neighborhood, focusing on the pejorative, reductive language of many characterizations:

Ghetto. I really don't like that word. I think it's very easy for someone to use that word without understanding what people who live in those types of neighborhoods go through. I think it has a very derogatory connotation to it. I think it [ghetto] criminalizes people, it stigmatizes people because they live that way because that's what they want when in reality, for a lot of families, a lot of what happens in the immediate surroundings like the graffiti and the gangs, which I agree are bad, isn't necessarily something that comes out of their own immediate family or circumstances.

Carmen felt that the language outsiders used to describe her neighborhood and other neighborhoods like hers confines and reduces people to criminals. The few people who engage in delinquent behavior have a deleterious impact on neighborhoods, diminishing quality of life for families like Carmen's who live, work, play, and go to school in the neighborhood. Violeta pointed to the map and stated, "Those were the railroad tracks. Basically, in '84, '85 this part of Orange County started being called the ghetto." In her characterization, Violeta raised a crucial and enduring issue that has been used as a political tool: the partitioning of neighborhoods with such structures as railroad tracks, freeways, and other physical barriers to keep one area separate from another. For obvious reasons, the phrase "the wrong side of the tracks" has historically been used to describe poor areas.

Susana described how her neighborhood was televised worldwide as the events of the 1992 Los Angeles Uprisings unfolded around her home. Susana, her family, and people in her community witnessed an historical moment. They were exposed to the noise pollution (sirens, car alarms, helicopters), visual pollution (smoke, broken windows, abandoned buildings), and fear that gripped the entire country. Communities lost vital parts of their infrastructure, and the conveniences of life before the devastation evaporated over night.

She explained:

In the 1992 uprisings, they burned down [our] library, so for a while we didn't have a library anymore. I remember seeing clouds of smoke everywhere. You would just look around and you would see black smoke. And when we did drive around to go somewhere, like, to the market, I remember seeing people up on their roof, like, of businesses, with -- you knew they were -- they had all this like the [bullet proof] vest and everything, ready to do something if anyone started looting their place. I remember seeing that on top of [inaudible] markets.

But we were just more scared, because during that time, we couldn't really go out. Everyone was looting. And I remember we -- it was more scary than anything, but I know my parents were also kind of pissed off at the fact that some people were taking advantage of the situation by getting new furniture out of it, and it was just like it didn't make sense to just burn down a store or loot a store and have no purpose in really why you're looting, And so we -- my mom bought me some there, and it was like a Korean -- I don't even know if it's Korean, but it was an Asian kind of swap meet, and that was gone. That was gone. They burned that whole thing down. No, the ones that I remember was a Latino market. The Korean market, they burned those down. I remember seeing the black-owned businesses, people would put, "this is a black-owned business." Because I remember across the street there was a florist, and it was a black-owned business, so they put that sign and they never did anything to that. But right across from the flower shop, there was this big Korean swap meet; it was almost like a huge store, but it was different little vendors, but they were Korean, because I remember my mom bought me socks there one time. The ones that have -- I don't know if you ever saw them - they had like a little bolita, like a little pompom -- What I remember during that time, is not being able to go out. We couldn't go anywhere, which I didn't want to go anywhere.

In these descriptions, Susana details an event and a perspective that few people in the US have. Her neighborhood was under siege, on fire, the center of the turmoil. While the uprising was happening, Susana's parents tried to distinguish the "us" and the "them." The categories were confusing and complex. The looting and burning of community resources did not make sense to them as they watched their own community implode.

The next installment in the series is: Understanding Poverty from the Inside: Food