Poverty and Mental Illness: How an Impoverished Childhood Almost Took Away My Life

Economic Justice For All

“I believe that, as long as there is plenty, poverty is evil. Government belongs wherever evil needs an adversary and there are people in distress.” ― Robert F. Kennedy.

I recently watched two phenomenal documentaries, one titled King in the Wilderness, an HBO documentary which chronicled the late stages of the unparalleled career of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the other being Bobby Kennedy for President, a Netflix documentary about the political and emotional life of one of our country’s greatest politicians. Both men, in their actions and their ideas, have profoundly impacted my life, predominately because of their crusades against poverty, predominately because I was one of those children whom they sought to rescue.

My goal in writing this post is to paint a picture of poverty for the reader, indicating the experience of growing up on welfare assistance programs, to help her or him understand, from my perspective, the corrosive affects of poverty on one’s relationships, their self-esteem, their sense of safety, their confidence in their abilities to manage distress, and the toll it takes on an individual’s emotional well-being.

Poverty, is undoubtedly an evil, one which pervaded every aspect of my life, a seemingly inescapable curse from which I desperately sought, for most of my life, to break-free. Those on the political right believe that poverty perpetuates on itself through government intervention; they suppose that aiding those in need keeps them in need, as financial assistance prevents them from fending for themselves. But the research (I’ll post a link to a great article on the subject at the bottom), and my own personal experiences, contradict that notion, proving it to be bullshit.

When I was a kid, I was aware of my social standing, my level of poverty, each day of my short life. I was aware of it when my mother was trying to support us on government assistance and odd-jobs, which was her best-case scenario due to her immigrant status; I was aware of it when I compared myself to the other children in school, who were able to buy snacks and shop at the fairs which came to our school; I was aware of it when we were given an eviction notice because we were too poor to pay our rent; and, I was aware of it each time I told myself that life would always be that way. Additionally, poverty exacted its toll on my perception of myself, which was evident each time I convinced myself that it defined who I was, as I believed it to be inevitable. I told myself that that was who I was, and who I was always going to be; I believed that my troubles would carry on all the way to my very end.

Those moments, intense as they were, fortunately weren’t the sum of my entire story; they didn’t get to define my life, because I didn’t allow them to. In that period, while we were scraping to get by, I told myself, repetitively, that I had to find a way out, that I wasn’t going to spend my life in poverty. I knew that if I didn’t work my fingers to the bone, it would crush my soul, destroying any remains of a once vibrant and passionate boy. So, that was what I did; I sought my way out, and found it in academia. I was obsessive and compulsive; I used my drive and my fear of remaining needy to hyper-focus on my schoolwork. More than anything, I wanted to become someone, anyone who wasn’t poor.

My goal was never to sustain a relationship within which I continually accepted government subsidies; I yearned for my independence, while acknowledging the significance of those moments of desperation in which my government came to my aid. Bobby Kennedy, in his tour of the Mississippi Delta, was horrified by the travesty of the American Dream, the perversion of an axiomatically attainable ideal, which was apparently accessible for all who truly wanted it.

In those moments, Bobby recognized the fallaciousness of our collective ideology, captured in the wails of children who appeared as though they were weeks, some even days, from death. Those instances, and those experiences, affected Bobby in ways which undoubtedly haunted him until his own, untimely, death. It was during his excursion that Bobby was presented with the un-sustainability of a system which tries its best to eradicate its poverty, and its poor, through unsavory means.

Without government aid, I don’t know where I would have been, and I’m skeptical that I would even be alive today. For those who argue that the government assisted poor want to remain so, I suggest that they do what Bobby did, and witness poverty for themselves; they would see that few who are on welfare assistance programs want to remain on them, and those who do tend to have limited self-efficacy and self-esteem, necessitating mental health treatment, rather than rejection and the denial of necessary services. I’ll always be grateful for the programs which sustained my family when I needed them most; and, I will never forget the role our government, and tax-payers, had in my personal success.

“I took Bobby Kennedy through the Delta, and he cried like a baby.” – Charles Evers

Trump’s War on the Poor by Paul Krugman

The Cost of Keeping Children Poor by Mark Rank



  1. I can’t help thinking, in our rich-only-get-richer society, that if we never studied history and somebody wrote Bobby Kennedy’s story today, Americans would take it as laughable fiction, that some silver-spoon white boy would come down from his lofty perch and fight for the people. Today we don’t see it, or if we do, we dismiss it as some “goodwill gimmick” for the press.

    The man was flawed like crazy, but he actually took the time to learn and see. Heaven knows we need more like that, more men and women willing to go beyond what they knew, to bend and stretch and do things to improve society as a whole.

    Bobby Kennedy is responsible for one of my biggest cry moments. Every time I see his speech on the back of that truck the night MLK was killed, I tear up and my throat closes. Helluva terrible moment, and a helluva honest speech. Hell, just thinking about it is making me tear up. To think that these two men were crossing the country making change at the same time…it makes the 60s more inspiring than dreadful when you learn it in history class.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Makes me sad, and makes me wonder where the hell all the good, eloquent leaders have gone. I mourn not just because of the content of that speech, but the sincerity and the eloquence even in its awkwardness due to it’s last-minute writing.

        Liked by 1 person

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