I have much more experience with being poor than I do with having a boyfriend. I grew up with parents who struggled financially and fought about it constantly, and I vowed to myself that I would never endure a relationship characterized by fights about (lack of) money. At 15, my planned maneuver was to go to medical school, become a surgeon, and buy myself a Porsche at age 30, removing financial stressors from the equation altogether. Instead, I wound up giving up pre-med in my junior year of college, serving two terms as an AmeriCorps member and approaching my thirtieth birthday as a freelance writer.
It’s a very different financial picture than what I’d envisioned as a teenager, and in order to never endure a relationship stressed by financial concerns, well, I’ve had to never endure a relationship.
There are those who find this particular condition of mine to be pitiable, but I don’t; not because it’s not pitiable, but because pity is, truly, just one more thing I can’t afford. Self-pity is the enemy of the impoverished (alongside collection agencies, the American health care system, rising food costs, and about a zillion other things), because when you’re poor—really poor—just facing the world takes so much damn energy that there’s no room left over for honest self-evaluation. “Success is moving from failure to failure without any loss of enthusiasm,” said Winston Churchill, and by that measure I have succeeded, but only because enthusiasm is pretty much the only thing that keeps me going. Take away my battle-weary optimism and I’m just another dumb schmuck hacking away at the Next Great American Novel, too stupid to recognize the futility of my efforts.
But you know what I’m not too stupid to recognize? How incredibly unsexy my life—in all of its futile optimism—looks to an outsider; to, say, a romantical prospect. “Let’s stay in tonight and eat peanut butter and tuna fish” has never gotten anybody laid, ever. “I can’t afford that” is the opposite of a turn-on.
My senior year of high school, my father got a new job and my parents found themselves, at long last, on sound fiscal footing; the transformation it has wrought in their relationship is nothing short of miraculous. It’s sweet to believe that being in love is enough to hold two people together through absolutely anything, but it’s also grindingly naive.
And I get it, because attraction is a two-way street. My tastes are eclectic and my standards are not terrifically high—intelligent eyes, a kind smile and self-assuredness about one’s own inherent doofiness pretty much covers it—but you know what I definitely do not want to involve myself with? Someone who is poor as shit. Being poor means that every day involves sorting out a new catastrophe: late buses and food stamps reporting and overdraft fees and fixing everything yourself, because who the hell can afford a replacement? It’s a strange combination of dependence and insular self-reliance, this condition known as poverty, and for those of us inside of it, sometimes putting one foot in front of the other is all we can muster.
Intimacy is never easy. It’s even harder when someone is distracted, or ashamed, or depressed, or scared—and living in poverty means living in a constant state of all of these emotions. There are, of course, those who surmount their surroundings, who find loving relationships in spite of their nonexistent bank balances. I do not know how these people do it. Although I may lack firsthand experience in serious relationships, I have observed many of them, and what I encounter again and again is the simple fact that relationships are a choice: that long-term commitment, cohabitation and marriage, is a decision to share responsibility for one another’s lives, an agreement to open bank accounts together and raise children in a unified front and co-sign for property, to merge not only furniture and households but credit histories and outstanding debts. Poverty is not merely a turn-off; it is, in the calculation of mutual responsibility, a real liability, not only for the superficial and materialistic but for anyone who aspires to do things like “own a home” or “raise a family” or “not live in a constant struggle to feed oneself”.
So I can’t blame the dudes for staying away. And I can’t blame my own hesitance to become seriously involved with someone. I want to raise kids someday, too, but bringing a dependent human being into the disaster area of my finances is the height of irresponsibility—and the same thing is true within the romantic sphere. A loving, committed, mature relationship with another person might be one of the most fundamental human needs, and it might seem unduly harsh to suggest that the chances of realizing that ambition are limited by poverty—but it’s also true. Barring the entrance of a secret multimillionaire whose largesse renders my own fiscal inadequacies entirely moot, the consequences of my less-than-stellar financial decision-making will continue to follow me throughout my life, and in avenues I never anticipated when I made the decisions that have led to my poverty.
I don’t mean to suggest that poverty—whatever its causes—renders one fundamentally unlovable. I’m sure there’s some kind-eyed, goofy-smiled guy out there somewhere in the world willing to look past the shitshow of my financial history (whether we will ever meet is, of course, another question altogether). But it’s also true that lack of money and lack of resources narrows one’s playing field; I have many great friends from all socioeconomic classes but I also have others who’ve been driven off by the stink of my poor, and friendship entangles assets much less than relationships do.
What’s really frustrating, though, is that nobody talks about it. Growing up, I absorbed a common dichotomy: one could be “poor and happy” or rich and, presumably, miserable—as though wealth must always be accompanied by its own inherent malaise. In pursuing my dreams, I was prepared to live frugally, to shop at second-hand stores and live in non-hip neighborhoods, to endure the more obvious material lack; the first time I stood in line at the county social services office to apply for food stamps, I began to accept the myriad other indignities that come with being poor in contemporary America. After all, I told myself, I have a large, awesome family with whom I am close; amazing friends; meaningful work—the things that I lacked were minor things.
But relationships are not minor things. Raising one’s own family is not a minor thing. Poor folk share the same aches and pangs and longings as the rich; at bottom, all of us—regardless of class—just want to love and be loved. In theory, it doesn’t sound much like economics, but in practice… well, you try putting “I’ve pawned jewelry to make rent” on your OKCupid profile and see how many messages it earns you.
But it’s cool. I don’t judge ‘em for it. I wouldn’t want to hit that, either.