Nautilus

Why Poverty Is Like a Disease

On paper alone you would never guess that I grew up poor and hungry.

My most recent annual salary was over $700,000. I am a Truman National Security Fellow and a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations. My publisher has just released my latest book series on quantitative finance in worldwide distribution.

None of it feels like enough. I feel as though I am wired for a permanent state of fight or flight, waiting for the other shoe to drop, or the metaphorical week when I don’t eat. I’ve chosen not to have children, partly because—despite any success—I still don’t feel I have a safety net. I have a huge minimum checking account balance in mind before I would ever consider having children. If you knew me personally, you might get glimpses of stress, self-doubt, anxiety, and depression. And you might hear about Tennessee.

Meet anyone from Tennessee and they will never say they are from “just” Tennessee. They’ll add a prefix: East, West, or Middle. My early life was in East Tennessee, in an Appalachian town called Rockwood. I was the eldest of four children with a household income that couldn’t support one. Every Pentecostal church in the surrounding hillbilly heroin country smelled the same: a sweaty mix of cheap cleaner and even cheaper anointing oil, with just a hint of forsaken hope. One of those forsaken churches was effectively my childhood home, and my school.

Schoolhouse: The Front St. Pentecostal Church in Rockwood, Tennessee. It was where I went to school, and the center of my daily life.

Class was a single room of 20 people running from kindergarten through twelfth grade, part of an unaccredited school practicing what’s called Accelerated Christian Education. We were given booklets to read to ourselves, by ourselves. We scored our own homework. There were no lectures, and I did not have a teacher. Once in a while the preacher’s wife would hand out a test. We weren’t allowed to do anything. There were no movies, and no music. Years would pass with no distinguishing features, no events. There was barely any socializing.

On top of it all, I spent a lot of my time pondering basic questions. Where will my next meal come from? Will I have electricity tomorrow? I became intimately acquainted with the embarrassment of my mom trying to hide our food stamps at the grocery store checkout. I remember panic setting in as early as age 8, at the prospect of a perpetual uncertainty about everything in life, from food to clothes to education. I knew that

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