"Life sucks, kid."
Sharon’s smile is the first sign of hardship in her life, and, perhaps, of dubious choices she has made: her wide grin reveals a mouth full of worn, brown nubs. Yet she is unabashed, energetic, and friendly. She is 26 years old, though she looks older. A white mother of one, she is four-and-a-half months pregnant with a girl. Lacking a car in a small town without much public transportation, Sharon rarely leaves her apartment. She is starved for company, and happy to bend the ear of anyone who happens by, although such unannounced visitors are rare. She prefers to stand as she talks, a sign of excessive nervous energy or maybe the fact that there is only one place to sit in her living room, a well-worn love seat.
Sharon has had even less reason to leave her apartment lately being that she has not worked in almost a year. Altogether, she manages to bring in cash income of $245 a month between child support and a utilities rebate, but this still leaves her below 25 percent of the federal poverty line for a family of two—soon to be three. Sharon makes ends meet largely because she pays no rent thanks to her subsidized apartment, and she has the help of her live-in boyfriend. Stable for now, a lot is riding on her ability to keep ahold of her subsidized unit and her relationship.
Her parents, homeless at one point (“sleeping in a car,” says Sharon), could not afford to care for her: “they were struggling; they were barely able to keep food in their mouths.” So Sharon was sent to live with her grandparents, who she describes in the worst possible terms: abusive, alcoholic, overly protective, and actively working to turn her against her parents. Diagnosed with a number of conditions as a child (“bipolar, depressive, anxiety”), Sharon says that “by the time I was seventeen, I was on over maybe six hundred different medications.” She blames her grandmother, claiming that she “liked to keep me doped up because [I never sat still].” She describes her upbringing as “very lonely.”
Sharon’s grandmother died when she was thirteen (“I was actually glad she died,” says Sharon), which sent her back to her parents, with whom she has lived on-and-off even into adulthood. None among her parents and grandparents had more than a high school diploma. Sharon did not even make it that far, failing to graduate high school. She has gone back to get her GED at least once, but she has yet to finish. She says she is bad at math, and besides, she doesn’t understand why she needs college or even a GED to do what she ultimately wants to do, which is open her own restaurant.
Sharon describes the difficulties of her childhood in level, unemotional terms, although she had no problem using colorful language about her past. Unfortunately, even with the difficulties she faced under her grandmother’s care, there were further troubles yet to come. She married, only to learn the worst about her husband: “I left him because I found out he was, he had been molesting his niece and some of her little friends. And had raped a couple of my girlfriends that we hung out with on a regular basis back when we were dating [as] teenagers. Yeah, so... it took me almost a year for me to be able to scrub it off me, I kind of felt responsible, because, how'd I not know that, you know? H-how do you not know that? How do you not know your husband's going and doing these things?”
With her husband in jail, Sharon began seeing the man who became the father of her son, but this relationship also turned abusive. Just a two weeks after getting pregnant, Sharon says her boyfriend began to show “his not so nice side.” She was with him on-and-off for years before she finally ended it for good. Sharon moved back in with her mom for a few months, until a family friend, who ran an apartment complex, cut her a break on some of the entrance costs and got her in.
Given her previous living arrangements, which included a stint in a house with 12 people while her son was still an infant, the relative quiet of Sharon’s current apartment took some getting used to. The unit, saturated with the smell of cigarettes, is spartan but tidy. A tube television sits on an entertainment center, and a couch sits tipped up on its side. There is a small desk and chair for her five-year old son, who Sharon calls her “little Doctor Phil” because he makes excuses for the kids who bully him: “Mommy, they were never shown any love, it's not their fault, they try to hit me and pick on me. Their mommy doesn't love them.” At this moment, her son is fascinated with a small snapping turtle that he loves to let roam across the apartment’s carpeted floor.
Although not working now, Sharon has been working on and off since she was thirteen: at a race track (first taking tickets and then as a security guard), at a variety of restaurants, and cleaning vacant and foreclosed houses. The cleaning work, which was her most recent job, was for a company owned by her aunt. “I was going into these foreclosed homes, some of them falling down, um, walking through attics, had my foot go through a few floors,” says Sharon. “Um, the mold and stuff like that didn't need to be [near it]. Um, me and my cousin, which is her daughter were in this one house, and there was freaking squatters in the house.” Sharon quit after just a few months. That was almost a year ago, and since then Sharon has been babysitting, although the work is unpredictable: she can go several months without a job and then work every day in a single week.
Sharon is relatively well-subscribed to public benefits. She receives WIC, SNAP, Medicaid, and subsidized housing. Yet she draws the line at welfare: “I was only on a TCA long enough to get in here and then I stopped it because I didn't want the assistance. It's bad enough they're feeding us. That's kind of how I feel about it, I feel like a freeloader. And I'm not, I'm a hard worker, I always work, work, work, work, work.” Yet despite her claims about work, Sharon’s true safety net is her boyfriend, who she has been with for two years. He stays at her place often but is not on the lease and still pays rent to his parents. He works mostly for tips at a car wash in a town about thirty minutes away by bus. Sharon says he helps her as needed, but they do not have a formal arrangement.
Sharon’s sense of energy and optimism is encouraging, especially given all she has experienced. “I'm rich in spirit, people,” she says. “[W]e got a little bit, but we're happy.” She is grateful for moments of grace, like when her upstairs neighbors invites her and her son for dinner. And she also tries to do her own small but special gestures, like spending the three dollars for fresh strawberries for her son. (“I got him a box of strawberries for his birthday and he thinks it’s the greatest birthday present in the world “). But Sharon is no Pollyanna, nor is she a pushover. She is quick to rehearse the indignities, large and small, that have marked her life. Like most of the extreme poor, Sharon’s aspirations are modest. She would like a place that has a bedroom for her daughter who’s on the way and more of a yard for her son. In the past she imagined a future that involved fixing cars, but she says now that cars are so computerized, they are beyond her. Her current dream is to have a restaurant, based on her love of food and ability to turn leftovers into something good.
Sharon’s outlook might be well-summarized by a short diatribe she offered her young son: “Yeah, the world's not all poop and sprinkles, you know, like it's gonna be messed up, at points in time, life sucks. You're not gonna get what you want. Things aren't gonna happen the way you want them to. Yes, you can be anything you want to be, but there's sacrifices and choices that you're gonna have to make. It's gonna be the opposite of the way your demeanor is, and the way who you are as a person you're gonna have to make choices you're not gonna wanna make. Life sucks, kid. Love you, be a kid as long as you can, because life sucks, kid.”
- Kathy Edin & Luke Shaefer