Lessons from Growing up ‘Poor’

By Jeremy Van Dusen, Education Program Services Manager

I grew up living in poverty. This was something I did not realize until I was older. I thought everyone in the city took the bus, because everyone in my neighborhood took the bus. I thought everyone in the city used the food bank, because all my friends’ cupboards were filled with the same generic government-labeled food that filled my cupboards. We all mixed water with powdered milk before we poured our bowls of cereal. We all wore Skips (off-brand sneakers) and hand-me-down clothes. This was life.

Grocery shopping was my first experience understanding that my family was a little different. My mom used paper money that looked different from the paper money others in line were using. I asked my mom why our money looked different. She stated that we used food stamps—that we got help so we could eat. That moment has resonated with me to this day.

Our move to Washington when I was 11 years old really brought our poverty experience into focus. We packed our things, hopped on a Greyhound bus and made the journey from Binghamton, New York to Spokane, Washington. I was enrolled in a new school, but nothing about it was like my old school. Most notably, everyone was white. I began to make friends and noticed differences in the way my family dressed, and the way we talked. I went to my classmates’ houses and no one else lived in an apartment. Their parents dropped them off at school, and most of them brought lunch from home. I had never brought a lunch. I always got free lunch at school. No one in my immediate family knew how to drive a car, and I never saw my friends on the city bus.

As I grew older it became clear to me: We were poor. The first day of school after Christmas break was always particularly hard because everyone had new shoes and new clothes, and they would talk about all the gifts they had received. Honestly, it felt horrible. I started carrying feelings of shame and embarrassment. I made up stories about where my mom was employed and why she didn’t drive. I never invited friends to my house because I knew once they saw my home and my family, they would see the stark differences in how we lived.  This was how I managed until high school.

In high school, I was still embarrassed and wished we were not so poor, but I loved my mom and my family and knew we had things to be proud of. My mother taught me how to love and instilled in me the pride to believe in myself. Growing up in poverty taught me empathy and perseverance. I have always believed in myself and my abilities. I knew I could focus on school and build a life that looked different than my childhood.

As I became a man, I started understanding how my experiences enabled me to be resilient, how to persevere and how to respect people for who they are as an individual—and not by what they have. I think there are a lot of stereotypes placed on those experiencing poverty that do not actually come from the people experiencing it. These judgments come from people on the outside trying not to look into the experience. Hardworking, trustworthy, reliable, clean, efficient, successful and disciplined are all words not typically associated with poverty. But those words are very much demonstrated by those experiencing poverty. Being poor does not make anyone less than someone else and having money doesn’t make anyone better. I am proud to be who I am and proud of where I’m from. I would not change a thing.

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About the Author

Jeremy Van Dusen is the Program Manager for Graduation Success in Spokane. He is a passionate leader and is thankful to serve the Spokane community.  Jeremy is originally from Binghamton, New York and moved to Spokane as a youth.  He graduated from Eastern Washington University in 2012 as a triple major with degrees in philosophy, history and humanities.

Comments (5)


September 25, 2020

Your story really touched me. I, too grew up poor and had those same feelings of shame. I am so glad to see that you’re living a happy life!


Stacy Jacobsen

January 5, 2021


Funny how me doing a crappy job on a corner of crown molding in the home I currently live in led me to your story. I’m a perfectionist, so I had to give myself a “pep talk” about how lucky I am to be where I’m at today. In relative terms, a house that has good bones, lots of space and is structurally sound. It only needs help cosmetically. Having a husband who’s seen where I grew up and understands certain residual quirks and insecurities that I have and loves me still.
A far cry from the situation I grew up in.

Reading about your childhood, friend’s homes and the food shelf was so eerily similar…Except I grew up in a trailer home with drafty windows and a leaky roof. Only my dad drove and my mother stayed home.
I remember one year my only Christmas present being from the food shelf- a ceramic ballerina music box.
The embarrassment I felt and not inviting friends over.
My mother was so embarrassed, she’d never LET me have friends over.

I apologize, I know this is completely out of the blue, but I just wanted to say thank you for the honesty and detail you included in your article and I’m glad I randomly stumbled upon it. I feel the same- that those experiences have shaped me into a more humble, compassionate and caring human being. I’ve always disliked the stigma that accompanies being poor.

Wishing you well.
Stacy Jacobsen



June 8, 2022

I raised my children living below the poverty level. I wrestled with guilt for years. God is so good. He allowed my children to be grateful nonetheless and they assure me that they learned to be respectful, responsible, grateful and resourceful. God always provides our needs when we ask!



July 28, 2022

Your comment – Life is tough and you provided a moment for me to reflect and remember the many meaningful lessons I experienced growing up with less. As I enter my last chapter I appreciate what I have and what I lived through. Thank you for articulating it through your story.
Thank you,



May 4, 2024


Here I am, 3 am in the morning PST not sleeping, and google searching “how to talk to your kids about money while enduring poverty,” because my mind is racing with worried thoughts about the future, and I find your blog post. I have been a single mother for 18 years, living below the poverty line exclusively. I was beyond grateful in this moment to read YOUR depictions of a poverty experience that showcases a loving home and family, and the use of adjectives that empower people coming from circumstances of disenfranchisement. I have taught my daughter about the connection between social justice and the importance of questioning systemic authority, about putting faith in God and each other to overcome adversity in life, and about the relationship between doing and carrying a joyful spirit. Your post doesn’t mention spiritual faith and for me personally, it’s a relatively new hat. Having struggled recently with homelessness all this past year, I found my personal breaking point mirroring the strength I had been working on all of these years. For that, I am grateful. In general, I have learned to be kinder to myself, to seek out creative solutions to problems, and to give the most when I feel as though I have nothing left to give. I suppose these lessons are the essence of my spiritual beliefs. 🙂 I am needing community more than ever! Your post is a beacon of hopefulness and encouragement. Thank you for this kind act of sharing with us the wisdom you have gained on your journey, and in doing so helping to challenge the stigma associated with wealth inequality in the US and relating access to compassion communication. I realize that actions speak louder than words in all cases and my google search entry was grossly oversimplified! Grateful either way to be here. You have a beautiful family.

Humbly Yours,

PJ Wells


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