In 1961, I was born in a government housing project to two teenaged parents. There’s me standing in front of the building we lived in. My grandmother lived around on the other side of the building.
My parents met in this very courtyard when they were children. My mother’s family had to move to the project when she was 10, after her father deserted her and her three brothers to chase the ponies. The story of how my father ended up there is more circuitous, and much darker, but eventually, at age 12, he moved in, too.
Why Do We Need Government?
I know politicians–during campaign speeches about how we don’t need all of these government programs–like to hark back to the good ole days when families took care of their own. I don’t know when exactly those days were, but they have must predated the 1940’s. If it weren’t for government housing projects in the 1940s’s I’m not sure what story I’d have to tell you.
Being Poor in America
I don’t remember being poor. What I remember most about the project is catching butterflies with my grandmother and putting them in big mason jars with holes she’d carefully hammered into the metal lids with a nail. I also remember her teaching me the alphabet.
For the record, she’s also the person who told me how you could tell if a woman was really a blonde or not. Why I needed to know something like that as a little girl, I have no idea, but I’ve never forgotten it. I’ve since learned as a labor and delivery nurse that you can also tell a true redhead the same way.
My grandma watched me every day while my mother worked for Bell Telephone and my father attended University of Louisville as a pre-med student. When I was four—sometime after learning how to tell does she or doesn’t she?–we moved to Bloomington, Indiana so my father could attend graduate school, thus ending our lives on the government dole.
Poor No More
But leaving the projects did not remove the stain of poverty from my parents’ psyche. I think shame forever shadowed my parents, never letting them—or me–forget where they came from, and what they really were: Two, poor, fatherless kids from the projects.
Growing up, my parents never talked to me about money. I never knew how much money they made, and I was strongly discouraged from asking. I was told that polite people didn’t discuss money. My mother, who would happily debate either politics or religion with anyone, never talked about money. When I got my first job, my mother taught me how to write a check and balance a checkbook. That is the sum-total of the financial education I received from either of my parents; the rest I learned on the streets.
Facing Aging Parents Finances
In 2008, my mother was diagnosed with advanced metastatic colorectal cancer. I rushed across the country to her bedside only to discover her secret that, despite working full time nearly all of her life, she had no health insurance, and her only savings was $1,000 hidden in a sock in her dresser drawer. She didn’t even have a bank account.
As she lay comatose in the ICU, I went to her house where I discovered a box taped shut with my name scrawled across the top sitting on her desk. Inside the box was 8 YEARS worth of unopened letters from the IRS totaling nearly $100K in unpaid taxes.
What is particularly sad is that this was all probably unnecessary. My mother worked for an attorney. He cared very much about her and would have helped her had she asked. But my mother never asked anyone for help with money. She never talked to anyone about money.
My mother recovered from her coma, and when I asked her why she’d lied to me she told me she was very ashamed. She’d never wanted to be a burden to her children with her financial problems; she kept hoping that somehow she’d pull herself out before anyone found out. Cancer got there first.
It was very stressful dealing with my mother’s financial fiasco, and I think much of it was avoidable if she’d only asked for help when her problems first surfaced.
How to Help Your Parents
In the last three years of my mother’s life she was too ill to cope with her massive money problems and so I took all of it on myself. It was extremely stressful, and even now, almost two years after her death, the issues with the IRS are not entirely resolved. It takes a lot before the IRS will believe you are not just merely dead, but truly most sincerely dead. And now, like my mother, I worry about becoming a burden to my children.
How about you? Are you prepared? Do you talk to your kids about your money? Have you talked to your parents about their financial situation?