A letter on poverty

Oct. 24, 2016, 12:27 a.m.

The speaker makes an offhand comment about the prevalence of hunger in American children. Some in the audience are shocked and appalled, some are not surprised and don’t react.

Meanwhile, I groan inside as my brain forces me through a flashback.

Seventh grade. The school district’s budget was dwindling because of the recession, and something had to be cut, and one of the things that the administrators saw fit to cut was the free and reduced lunches. So portions got smaller, they switched to smaller cartons of milk and they got rid of the salad bar. I, and most of the other kids who relied on the lunches as their only food during the school day, who can’t afford to pack a little ziplock bag of Goldfish crackers, starved.

I imagine this saved a few thousand dollars a year.

What’s it like to be FLI (first-generation / low-income) at Stanford? It’s a loaded question, and one that no one can ever fully answer. But for me, it hurts most when it comes to campus dialogues about politics and policy. Because, one way or the other, when people think they’re talking about policy in the abstract, they are actually talking about me.

Unlike my gender or the color of my skin, the fact that I am low-income isn’t visible. A few of my friends here are aware, and that’s only because the subject came up in conversation, and that’s about it. I mean, it’s not something you just tell people randomly for no reason. And it doesn’t often come up.

If you were introduced to someone here for the first time, you can never readily just identify if the person is FLI. And the majority of this campus is fairly wealthy. For context,  the median household income in America is about $56,000. The Pell Grant program awards money mostly to students from families making less than $50,000 a year, which roughly corresponds, then, to about the bottom 50 percent of this country. However, at Stanford, only about 16 percent of students receive Pell Grants, compared to 38 percent – more than twice that – at UCLA.

And because of this bubble of prosperity that we are in, we tend to be very forgetful that the lives of some of our friends outside this beautiful campus could be something entirely different. We forget that there are fellow “trees” among us who have been on welfare when we talk about cutting it. When we complain about how terrible dining hall food is (ranked in the top 20 by Business Insider), we forget that there are those among us who survived on food stamps and have gone hungry or homeless. We feel far removed from these problems at Stanford for obvious reasons. I do, too, to a certain degree; for example, Stanford has been gracious enough to provide me with Cardinal Care as part of my financial aid, making my time here the first time in my life I’ve had decent (read: non-Medicaid) health insurance.

But then, there are sharp pangs from time to time that brings my previous life sharply back to focus.

Whenever I hear about how Democrats have “compromised” with Republicans on some budgetary issue or other, I take a big gulp and hope for the best while fearing for the worst. Chances are, the Democrats probably agreed to cut some part of the budget to make it more “balanced,” and I pray silently that one of the programs that my family depends on for survival is not part of that “balance.”

I’m often told that compromise and moderation are crucial to making American democracy work, and I get a lot of criticism when I don’t accept that premise – but I can’t. Because these “compromises” never seem to affect folks at the top, only people on the bottom like me and my family. And just for once, I’d like to see a politician who will actually stand up for people like me, to say that enough is enough, to say that the burden of so-called compromise should not be falling on America’s most vulnerable, those like me, my family and millions more who can least weather any cuts to benefits, those who are hanging by a thread, those who can’t afford to lose another dollar.

I really like politics. I do. But in some way, I’m also wary of it, and disengaged from it, because I know there is nothing in it for me. I liked President Obama, and I still do. But I also can’t forget the fact that time and time again, he caved in to Republican budgets that cut deep into the programs that kept me and my family afloat, and sent us scrambling. And people – people here – always frame it as this sort of entertaining political game, with backroom deals and fiery speeches, winners and losers, all while the real losers – America’s vulnerable – continue to languish.

And I sometimes just wish I could have the floor of Congress for a couple of minutes. Instead of a cutesy speech, I wish I could just march up there with the millions of Americans like me, and say to anyone who wanted to “balance” the budget:

If you’re fine with us starving and struggling, broke and even homeless, then go ahead.


The author of this op-ed requested to remain anonymous due to the discussion of his finances.

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