AMELIA ROBINSON: Pink jackets and a yellow coat taught me about poverty

Editor’s note: This column first appeared in the Sunday, Nov. 24, 2019, edition of the Dayton Daily News.

It took four bad pink jackets and a sad yellow coat for me to realize that, yes, I was poor. But that was neither rare nor a reason to hang my head low.

There were clues about the first part long before the revelation came around in sixth grade.

The biggest missed hints were the processed cheese in the refrigerator and the food stamps tucked in my mother’s purse.

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The stamps came in colorful “coupon books,” each with a cracked Liberty Bell on the cover. Inside was what looked like Monopoly money, only the bills could be exchanged for meats, veggies, starches and the occasional Little Debbie snack cake.

An image of the signing of the Declaration of Independence was on the brown one that represented a $1 value. Jefferson was on the purple $5 stamp and Hamilton on the $10 green one.

The so-called government cheese was even a bigger giveaway. The blazing orange creation handed out in blocks was a “gift” to the poor from the one-and-only Ronald Reagan, the president who helped make “welfare queens” a household term.

Ironically, the Velveeta-like, American cheese-ish creation, like the butter and powdered milk were made from stockpiled milk the government bought to help struggling American farmers.

Perhaps little-kid me didn’t “get” that I was poor because the stamps kind of looked like money and the cheese legitimately pleased my forming tastebuds. It melted perfectly and went into some of the best grilled-cheese sandwiches and mac-and-cheese ever.

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Or perhaps I didn’t feel poor because my mother made sure my brother and I had the things we needed. We were never hungry.

I imagine that couldn’t have always been an easy illusion for her to pull off.

We were sometimes on welfare, but in my mind, the term “welfare queen” simply did not apply to my mom. She sent her kids to school and was a hard worker even though the work was not always there as Cleveland, my hometown, and the rest of the industrial Midwest began to rust.

So sometimes we needed those stamps and that delicious cheese.

It was during one of those sometimes that I realized I was one of the poor kids charities raised money to help. The sad yellow coat entered my life and turned everything upside down.

I knew where my mother got it: the Salvation Army a few blocks from our apartment. I was with her when she picked it up and was kind of a preteen jerk about having to wear the “free coat.” In ’80s neon, the jacket screamed “poor” and “hand-out.” It was a kerfuffle that came just as 11-year-old me was piecing the world together in the concrete jungle that is elementary school.

Today, I know that poverty is not a sin and needing help is not a weakness.

It is definitely not something that should embarrass the 15 million American children the National Center for Children in Poverty estimates live below the federal poverty threshold.

In Montgomery County, 93,210 people struggle with food insecurity, according to the Food Bank. About 26,350 of those people are children. The need was here long before the Memorial Day tornadoes smacked it in our faces.

The stigma had me in its snare when I was a kid.

Back then, I knew that Bill Cosby was the world's greatest dad, pots of gold could not be found at the end of rainbows and nothing was worse than being broke, busted and wack.

Looking back, our clothes were decent — but compared to the kids around us, our off-brand gear was broke and very much busted and wack. And I knew there was nothing worse than that.

The stuff in my closet was nothing like the bad, as in good, “pink lady jackets” worn by the crew of “it” girls with wrists dressed in jelly bracelets who ruled Margaret A. Ireland Elementary School. They wore jelly bracelets on their wrists. Their names were even embroidered on the backs of those pink jackets. The alpha was tiny and already had an asymmetrical Salt-N-Pepa haircut. She kind of dressed like Salt-N-Pepa, too.

Despite her power, asymmetrical haircut girl was a benevolent queen. The same could not be said for everyone in her foursome. Two of them could be little you-know-whats.

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As I made my way to school in that stupid yellow coat, I’d knew I’d have to watch out for their cracks. A wave of embarrassment washed over me when I walked inside.

Then I saw yellow.

There was one kid in that same yellow jacket. And then another, and another.

Seems their mothers paid the Salvation Army a visit, too.

Just before I walked into my classroom, I saw the girl with the asymmetrical haircut wearing her yellow jacket.

I gave her a second look, but didn’t say anything. The weather had changed, and she needed her yellow coat as much as I needed mine.

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Amelia Robinson is a reporter, columnist and podcaster for the Dayton Daily News and Amelia is an Oregon District resident who has been covering the Dayton community for 20 years. She covers topics including dining, nightlife, entertainment and the people, places and things that make Dayton a great place to live, work and play. She is the host of the National Association of Broadcasters Marconi award-nominated podcast “What Had Happened Was …” about the people and places of Dayton. She has been the author of the Smart Mouth column for the Dayton Daily News for 15 years. The column, which appears in Sunday’s Dayton Daily News Life & Arts section, was recognized as the best newspaper column in Ohio this year. Amelia appears on WHIO Radio’s “Miami Valley Morning News” every Friday and “Miami Valley Happenings with Jason Michaels” every Sunday. Amelia is also president and a founding member of the Greater Dayton Association of Black Journalists. She also serves on the boards of the Dayton Sister City Committee and Oregon Historic District Society.

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