Franklin Countys First News

Living in Poverty: “We bleed red”

Living in Poverty is a short series the Bulldog will be doing over the next few weeks, covering the issue of poverty in Franklin County. Franklin County has some of the highest levels of people living in poverty in the state. This overarching issue can look very different from one scenario to the next. Whether it’s impacting the children in our community, the elderly or the veterans ... or if it shows up as a grumbling stomach, an empty oil tank or an untreated health issue. Despite the numbers, Franklin County also has a wealth of resources and community members working hard to help. The article series aims to provide a platform for continuing the discussion that has already taken hold.

Out of respect to the persons in this story, true names have been omitted. All photographs have been used with permission.

JAY - A beat-up car comes rolling into the parking lot and finds a spot not far from Unit 9. Two girls, who could be twins, wrestle out of the back seat and begin unloading groceries.

"Bring the milk in the house. And then do your chores," The girls' mother, Meghan Johnson directs.

The girls pretend to be shy, hiding behind one another, and trudge into the house dutifully. Meghan lights up a cigarette and leans against the back of the car, apologizing for being late. She was doing a grocery run with her sister and had to bring her home. She lost track of time.

Her apologies begin to fade as she launches into the story of her vehicle.

She shows me pictures on the back of a digital camera of a car she is planning on buying. One that will be reliable and, hopefully, insured.

Meghan struggles with maintaining insurance for her car. She knows the consequences of going without, but it is a luxury that she can't always afford. There is no weighing of risks, it simply isn't always an option. And when you live in rural Maine, not owning a car can be even more challenging than owning an uninsured, dilapidated one. Public transportation is tough to find and requires planning ahead- another luxury altogether.

"If the car breaks down, I don't know where I'm going to get the money to fix it," Meghan says. "Poverty sucks."

Meghan is far from alone in her opinion of poverty. But unlike a lot of people living in its clutches, she is choosing to open up about the subject.

"She's got nothing to hide," Jennifer Stone says.

Stone is the guidance counselor at Spruce Mountain Elementary, where the girls go to school. She spends many hours not only with the girls, but with Meghan- helping the family in any way she can.

"She's a mama bear for those girls," Stone says.

In Unit 9, the girls drape themselves on their mother and circle around her like honeybees. They bring her stuffed animals to kiss, snacks to share and art work to praise.

Meghan begins to give a brief timeline of her life but is stopped periodically with questions and comments from the girls, as though they are hearing some of the stories for the first time ever. Other stories are old hats and they chime in with details, like when Meghan was only five years old and thought you could milk a cow just by placing a cup under it.

The girls break with laughter and Meghan nervously joins, uncertain of her role in the interview. Serious? Professional? Honest? Or just trying to get her story out?

She lands on the latter.

"I was the youngest of 10 kids. Two of my brothers are dead. I was the skinniest and quietest one. You wouldn't believe that now, though," she says.

Meghan grew up in the Madison/Anson area. She describes her late step father as disgusting and says her mother was blind to what was going on-though she doesn't go into detail.

"I don't hate my mama," she says.

The family lived within the depths of poverty, barely getting by the majority of the time. Meghan describes herself as a "straight F" student. School was a struggle, both academically and behaviorally. She becomes emotional as she recalls kicking a pregnant teacher in the stomach, wishing she could go back and apologize.

Despite an upbringing full of chaos, familial death and a "seen not heard" home life, Meghan is turning over a new leaf with her daughters.

"It's about them now. Their lives. I could have gone backwards, but I didn't because of them," she says.

Meghan attributes much of their financial struggle to a serious illness earlier in her life followed by a messy, expensive divorce. Despite two kids in tow, she lost the house they were living in along with all of her money. After staying with a friend for several months, the Johnsons moved into the tiny low-income housing unit. Now Meghan plays the balancing act of making enough money to survive without making so much that they would get kicked out of their home.

"This is not a good place to raise children. There's no place for them to play, nowhere to garden. When you're needing something for your kids, if they want an activity or something, they should have it. Swings, bike riding, stuff like that. I want a big house so we can have room for art classes," Meghan says.

The depressing state of the housing unit pushes Meghan and the girls to spend the majority of their summers at Brettun's Pond in Livermore. On the shores of the lake she conducts summer school, teaching the girls math and reading and giving them art lessons.

"I love taking pictures. I make jewelry. I paint. I keep praying to win that fancy blue ribbon at that fair. That is one of my goals," she says.

The girls show me their paintings of light houses and sunny fields, shining fair ribbons dangling from the corners. Then they show me a pet crayfish caught at the lake that they keep in an aquarium in the kitchen.

"I can do a cartwheel. And you can put that in the paper," Meghan adds. "All these extra things are not a necessity, but I believe they are. We got a grant for the girls to go to camp this summer. Which will be hell for me because I'll miss them," she says.

For the Johnson girls, the grants for summer camp, the school program scholarships and support from people like Mrs. Stone, are crucial to their chance of escaping generational poverty. Without a helping hand to access opportunities such as summer camp, the girls miss out on much of what it means to be kids.

"Kids living in poverty have too much responsibility. They can't just be kids. Middle class kids get to be kids. But poverty kids are right there, seeing the bullets of poverty every day. It's like living in a war zone," author and poverty expert Dr. Donna Beegle explained at a recent conference held in Farmington.

She went on to tell the audience the sobering fact that a person born into poverty today is less likely to get an education than a child born into poverty in the 1940s. The statement can also be looked at as one of the solutions to the problem, proving that it needs to be a priority that the children in our community are getting an education.

"Meghan is working hard to teach her girls that education is important. She often mentions getting her GED, which is one thing that could help raise her out of poverty," Stone says.

But the road to getting her GED, now referred to as HiSet, is not necessarily a simple one, with barriers like child care, transportation and the lack of a motivating support system.

"Her job day in and day is being a mother to those girls," Stone says. Which is a different bumpy road altogether.

Along with the everyday difficulties of being a parent, Meghan is also doing it alone, with a car that only sometimes works and benefits that don't make ends meet. She still chooses to look on the bright side of things, however, and is teaching the girls to do the same.

"Tell her how our Christmas was," Meghan directs. The girls explode into excited descriptions of the tree, the food, the presents. Their faces light up with the telling.

"I believe my daughters are capable of going as far as they want," Meghan says. "No child should go without. We prick our fingers. We bleed red."


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14 Responses »

  1. Thank you for sharing your story.

  2. I have no doubt that these two girls will beat the cycle of generational poverty! They are smart and have a mother who believes in them. Although, I am certain it will be moving out of their current community, as a young adult, to do so! May they be encouraged to spread their wings and know the sky is the limit! I have met "Meghan" and she is a woman of faith and hope.....Well done Meghan; continue to encourage and nurture these girls. There is no doubt they are loved.

  3. Well written story Amber Kapiloff and one that needs to be shared!! Poverty is all around us. If you have not had the chance to read her book or hear her speak, Dr. Donna Beegle is wonderful at sharing her story of generational poverty and how she was able to overcome it.

  4. Amber,you could have Left out the lighting of a cigarette, it did not help this story.I do hope she can find a way to improve her and the children's situation.

  5. Meghan, thank you for being brave enough to share your story and Amber, thanks for taking the time and caring enough to tell it.

  6. Amber, thank you for your clear and compelling writing, and for showing us Meghan, a brave and loving mother.

  7. As soon as the 'powers that be' bring industries back to our country we can have good paying jobs with benefits for the millions of Americans who were forced into poverty because of greed. We can produce/make everything our country needs and don't need to depend on other countries. Time for the second Industrial Revolution!

  8. Why leave the part about lighting a cigarette out... If there is nothing to hide?

    Fact is.. I always hesitate to get too involved in helping someone who chooses cigarettes and things like that and also asks for financial help.
    I am not saying it makes them a bad person or a bad parent in any way but.....
    It IS a conflict. Because it is also not the kids fault mommy spends money on those things instead of necessities..
    Just being honest here as well...

  9. Thank you for sharing your story. There are too many people struggling in this country and we need to hear about it. (Amber: beautifully written)

  10. This is a well written article, but sorry to say I don't feel bad for someone who says they can't afford necessities but they can afford cigarettes. That is a very expensive habit and the money she receives in benefits should not be going to pay for them. I too went through a divorce and raised two children with little money, but never did my kids go without and I quit smoking to help pay for the things that were needed.....

  11. I think the story is objectively reported. I liked that I was getting all the details. I could feel the need for a cigarette, even though I don't smoke. Amber gets us all to empathize, not judge. One whisker of romanticism or political dogma and her point here, to show what poverty looks and feels like, would have lost that tension/power. It's rare to find a subject with this level of openness, and a writer to tell the story so well. I look forward to reading this series.

  12. We all have situations in life that we have no control over and we make the best choices we can, i.e., buying groceries - $50 may buy healthy choices for 1 week for 1 person, but if that must feed a family for a month.......

    Then we have situations we have control over - personal habits and as hard as it may be to quit smoking, drinking, etc. we make a conscious choice.

  13. Low income homes usually take about 1/3 of a tenant's income for rent. Some also make the tenant pay for heat, as well and electricity. They might get free garbage removal. The driveway gets plowed. But when you add the utilities to the cost of rent, it's no secret why she is afraid to go to work. How can she afford to pay a babysitter for 2 kids? Then, the added expense of transportation, car repairs, and clothing for all of them? If she has a reliable car, maybe when the girls are in school, she can free lance and clean for people? Most pay the same day. It would help. And for the smoking -- maybe she pays $25 a month for papers and loose tobacco and rolls her own. And where is the no good father?

  14. George, I spend about $100 a month on food (just for me) and I'm an old lady who doesn't have much of an appetite, too. I usually have food left over from the month before. But growing children can out-eat and adult by twice the amount. My boys used to also go through 3 pairs of sneakers a year, Each. That's 6 pairs of shoes. They grew so fast. Milk by the gallons every week. Cereal? Gone in 2 days. But they grew up healthy. They always had balanced meals. I wasn't on food stamps or Tanf. I used to clean people's homes. Summers, I worked in stores or factories. But that was when my oldest son was about 13 and he could watch his little brother. Some don't have aunts or uncles to help out or grandparents, either.