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They said I could break out of the curse of poverty. Coronavirus proves them wrong | Derecka Purnell | Opinion


For years, I believed that education was the great equalizer. And I was everything. First generation. Low-income. Underserved. At-risk. Impoverished. Promising. Gifted. Talented. Whatever term was in vogue for schools and nonprofits to stay funded.

My first day home from law school, I picked my mom up from a food and clothes pantry. She yelled at the volunteer, half loud, half proud, wholly smiling. “I told you, I told you that I had a daughter that goes to Harvard!” All of the curses of vertical generational poverty that I was supposed to break were crossed with horizontal poverty that was right in front of me. I had a parent, siblings, a child, and friends to help eat. Right now.

Five years later, so much has changed, yet so much has remained the same. Mostly because getting an education can help you feed people who are poor, but it cannot fix poverty. My family is constantly in crisis that the coronavirus pandemic only exacerbates. When the coronavirus was breaking in the United States, I was moving from a small two bedroom apartment to a new, multi-story townhome in a new city. As lines were wrapping around highways for food lines, I was grieving my newly late grandmother, ordering furniture, and attempting to cancel international flights. Within a week, my sisters and nephew had to move in with me because their living situation was unsafe. So unsafe, that it was worth the flight risk. I am blessed to have their presence, but lucky that I can afford it.

My mom could not come. She had two consecutive, inconclusive screenings for lung cancer before being ultimately diagnosed with lung disease before the peak of the pandemic. If she contracts Covid-19, her body will not beat it. In St Louis City, where she lives, every single person who has died from the virus is black. Politically, I believe that Amazon should not exist. Practically, I kept my Prime account open because it was one of the few ways that I can send her produce – by tricking the website’s algorithm to deliver Whole Foods to her zip code. Now the delivery windows take days, and she relies on mutual aid groups for help. Before the pandemic, she would complain about the corner store that frequently sold expired can goods and milk.

My cousin works at a rich, mostly white nursing home. She is a mother of seven, and despite being a nurse, hospitals that we called refused to test her, even after she displayed all of the Covid-19 symptoms. She quarantined for two weeks before returning back to the place where she likely contracted it: her job. For weeks, she did not have personal protective equipment. My cousin’s mom is also at risk. My elderly aunt is forced to work security everyday at an empty administrative bank that does not even hold money.

I imagine that others like me feel immense amounts of guilt, pressure, relief and luck. I call this low-income plus. All in a day, we work, organize, write, shop online, donate to mutual aids funds, have Zoom happy hours, and share nostalgic Instagram photos from earlier beach moments – and – send groceries across the state or country, call health departments with the right voice and vocabulary to get testing information; bail family out of jail or put money on their prison books; and weep. I call this Tuesday.

The first generation kids who become adults are burdened with undoing generations of racism, classism, sexism, slavery, patriarchy, xenophobia, ableism, and genocide just by going to school. Then, politicians tell us that education is a privilege and refuse to cancel our debt or make college free. Capitalism, as so many protest, is the crisis. Society does not put the same pressure on wealthy children to undo concentrated wealth, redistribute their resources, and stop the cycles that create concentrated poverty. And until there is radical redistribution of wealth and a complete evolution of values, more people will endure unnecessary suffering and death.

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