I know I’m late to the party, but I only just came upon that viral Dear Prudence letter about poor kids trick-or-treating in rich neighborhoods.
I live in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country, but on one of the more “modest” streets—mostly doctors and lawyers and family business owners. (A few blocks away are billionaires, families with famous last names, media moguls, etc.) I have noticed that on Halloween, what seems like 75 percent of the trick-or-treaters are clearly not from this neighborhood. Kids arrive in overflowing cars from less fortunate areas. I feel this is inappropriate. Halloween isn’t a social service or a charity in which I have to buy candy for less fortunate children. Obviously this makes me feel like a terrible person, because what’s the big deal about making less fortunate kids happy on a holiday? But it just bugs me, because we already pay more than enough taxes toward actual social services. Should Halloween be a neighborhood activity, or is it legitimately a free-for-all in which people hunt down the best candy grounds for their kids?
—Halloween for the 99 Percent
Guess what? I am one of those “poor” parents who takes their children trick-or-treating in “rich” neighborhoods. I’ve done it for years, and I’ll be doing it again this Friday. Why? Well if you must know, we live in an area of town that is not set up for trick-or-treating so we have to travel regardless, and I happen to love taking long, beautiful walks through a wealthy neighborhood a mile or so away. But honestly, my reasons shouldn’t matter, because when I read this letter, I see one more desired boundary to circumscribe and trap poor children—to keep them in their “proper” places, the places they deserve.
My kindergartener attends a “poor” school. I’ve looked at the boundary map for her school, and it looks like someone went out of their way to piece all of the poor neighborhoods together while leaving out the wealthier ones. And guess what? Someone did. I researched the backstory, and it turns out that my daughter’s school boundaries were drawn in the midst of some pretty heavy advocacy by some wealthy neighborhoods to stay out. Because apparently my children aren’t good enough for them to send their children to school with.
And I am angry. I am angry because this is about resource hoarding. It’s about the rich passing on all the resources possible to their children while depriving poor children of access to equal resources, and it’s disgusting. We give all sorts of lip service to equality of opportunity in this country, but in actually our social mobility is abysmally low. It is difficult for the children of the rich to fall into poverty, and difficult for the children of the poor to get out. And it is not this way by accident—it is this way because this is how the system set up.I’m not even angriest for my own children. My children, you see, are not poor-poor. They are graduate-student-poor. Graduate-student-poor is a sort of temporary poor that avoids much of the resource deprivation that accompanies being poor-poor. Other children are not so lucky. Other parents are stuck. It is for these children, and for these parents, that I am angriest.
My husband and I grew up in upper-middle class families. Our parents have college degrees and stable, well-paying jobs. Yet when my husband and I first married, we lived on very little. I learned what it was like to look through the food budget for something to cut or trim so that we could afford to add have meat a few times a month. I learned what it was like to beg rides or figure out how to navigate convoluted bus routes because we did not have a car. Our children have been on Medicaid, and our daughter now attends a low-income school. I have learned a lot since my privileged upbringing.
Yet I have not experienced true poverty. Our family has always been there to help us if we really needed, and we have always known that our current state was temporary. Indeed, things are already looking up for us! Someday we will finish graduate school and move, and then be faced the question of choosing a school district. It will be tempting to choose the neighborhood with the best schools, and at that point we will likely have the means to do so. But then, that is what perpetuates the system—everyone grabs the most they can for their children, and at that point I will be in a position to grab more than others.
I can’t say for sure what I will do in the future until I live it. I hope I won’t forget my experience being graduate-student-poor. I hope I’ll live by my principles. I hope I’ll remember what it was like to stand at the checkout shuffling through WIC coupons and holding up everyone behind me, only to learn that I grabbed the wrong brand of grape juice. And I hope I’ll remember what it was to take my “poor” children trick-or-treating in a “rich” neighborhood.
I hope I’ll be part of the solution rather than becoming part of the problem.