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Identity Crisis: Am I Rich, Poor or Middle Class in Hawaii?
A mother’s upbringing, shifting circumstances and the high cost of living make her question her social and economic identity.

About the Author

  • Cora Spearman
    Cora Spearman-Chang is the CEO, president and designer of Coradorables, which can be found at www.coradorables.com. She is a Neighborhood Board member in Honolulu.

Cora Spearman's previous story

Unless you are really rich, in Hawaii, it can be hard to know what you are in some ways.

I’m in my late 30s, a mother of two young kids. I was doing well financially before I got hit by unforeseeable health problems that drove me into a medical bankruptcy. Physically and financially, I’m recovering. But it has left me wondering about my identity in social and economic terms.

Was I rich? Am I poor? Have I always been middle class and now I’m just a little less so?

I’m not sure, but I think most of us are less wealthy and a lot more vulnerable than we think in the islands — and that has a lot to do with Hawaii’s crazy cost of living.

My People?

My dad educated me early on about the ways people rise and fall on the wealth scale. I am a child of grassroots activists. I grew up in a nice old home in an historic neighborhood of the urban-but-gentrifying city of Dayton, Ohio.

When my dad walked me to the bus stop to go to my elementary school, we would pass by the humanity on the street. Some people respectfully called them “the disenfranchised.” At church, people would refer to them as “the downtrodden.” Most other people called them “the homeless,” although some neighborhood kids were more cruel in their descriptions.

I wasn’t as gracious as my dad. I’d turn my 11-year-old nose up at the local crackheads and the mumbling, urine-soaked street-people.

My dad would tell me not to be afraid. “This is your neighborhood,” he’d say. “These are ‘our people,’ and they all deserve respect.”

He know a lot of things about the world that I didn’t. He explained that one of the homeless men had studied at Harvard. One “crackhead” was a decorated war veteran. A prostitute had been a beautiful homecoming queen; I could still see the shadow of her beauty. So could my handsome dad, who respectfully acknowledged her as we passed.

They all had a backstory. Their situation wasn’t pre-defined; there were reasons for their circumstances. I, of course, was a kid who didn’t understand the complexity of human experiences. I had no idea what it meant to live a couple of paychecks from desperation.

Now, I do. I see things differently when I stop to talk with children who live in tents on the streets of Kakaako.

But back then, I wasn’t as gracious as my dad. I’d turn my 11-year-old nose up at the local crackheads and the mumbling, urine-soaked street-people.

Walking in my Nine West leather shoes, with my Coach bag and carefully pressed Catholic girl’s uniform on the way to my private school, I’d think, “These are not my people.”

Cora Spearman's father

Cora Spearman’s father canvasses the neighborhood where she grew up in Dayton View, Ohio.

Courtesy of Cora Spearman

When Identities Collide

Life in Hawaii has taught me how quickly things like wealth, status and even parts of your identity can shift or disappear.

My own identity has long been linked to being educated. My parents, grandparents and great-grandparents all went to college before me.

My family members were also the only black members of the Dayton Jewish Community Center, which was a little like a country club, given the level of privilege of many of its members. I grew up with some children of extreme privilege. A few had arcades, maids and even helicopter landing pads in their yards.

Sinking into poverty wasn’t something I could relate to, or imagine ever facing. And yet, despite becoming a rising entrepreneur from a secure upper middle-class family, I was just a medical crisis away — despite great health insurance — from bankruptcy. At my worst moments, I have been a paycheck or two from desperation.

This has given me a different sort of education in the ways of the world. One lesson began when I walked into the Welfare office on Queen Street in Honolulu to apply for SNAP assistance to help pay for food for my young children.

To go in there, I had to get over my ego, my pride and even my family legacy. There is no worrying about shaming your ancestors when you’re little kids need to eat.

So as a grown up, my inner child was one of privilege and externally I was an adult fashion maven, and yet I had to go in to apply for food stamps.

To convince myself to do it, I insisted that my situation was temporary.

Another part of my identity is linked to what I think of as my cool, funky fashion sense and what my husband refers to as my “friendly fro,” which is the tall halo of kinky brown hair rising up from my head. When I would pay too much attention to my hair, my father used to remind me, “Cora, it’s not what is on your head, but what is in your head, that truly matters.”

So as a grown up, my inner child remains one of privilege, while externally I am a recovering fashion maven, and yet I had to go in to apply for food stamps.

To avoid thinking about my situation, my mind focused on small symbolic things, like what am I supposed to wear to apply for welfare? (I’m guessing that Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw never addressed that in her fictional column.)

At home, I filled out the SNAP paperwork. There was a lot of it. Then I dressed modestly in a pair of three-seasons-old J Crew distressed “boyfriend” jeans and a lightweight V-neck sweater.

I arrived early, but there was already a line around the building. Among the many people, there were well-dressed immigrants standing in line wearing jade jewelry. I had dressed down; some of them had dressed up. Some asked me — and the state workers — for help with their paperwork. My outfit looked enough like the employees’ work-wear to make that possible.

Cora Spearman and her daughter in front of Iolani Palace

Spearman and her two children paid a visit to Iolani Palace.

Courtesy of Cora Spearman

We all picked up numbers and got in line. It felt a little like we were in old footage of the breadlines in the 1930s, albeit with some modern touches that might be a testament to how quickly people’s situations can change.

There were plenty of people who looked like I expected people in a “Welfare line” to look, but there were also tan surfer boys, skateboards in hand, sending texts on their iPhones. A few women who once shopped at my long-closed clothing boutique were waiting to.

There were also people who seemed like they had been there for generations, as though their mothers and grandmothers had passed this inheritance onto them. I’m sure they, too, have back stories.

I made a vow to myself to one day get into a position to feed such people, and bring about some sort of significant changes.

And then there was me: college-educated business owner, philanthropist, cancer-battling fashionista and aspiring SNAP recipient.

It sort of made sense. I had paid into the system, as had my parents and theirs. The question, though, as I made it into a small waiting room inside, was: Do I have what it takes to deserve food assistance?

At precisely 8am, we finally reached the second little waiting room, which that was crammed with chairs and an old television that was showing an informational video about how to use an EBT card, and what to do if you lose it.

After the video ended, an armed security guard put on a DVD of the Disney Pixar movie Up. The animated story of an elderly man who, to avoid being taken away to a nursing home, turns his house into a giant hot air balloon, made for quirky viewing.

At some point, a college-aged guy with extremely long fingernails and dilated pupils began to nod off next to me.

Cora Spearman and her father

Spearman and her father share a moment in 2009, after her cancer treatments began.

Courtesy of Cora Spearman

Then, a gender-ambiguous person with dirty flowers in her, or his, hair sauntered in. She, or he, was brash and loud in a male sort of way, but also a total diva.

I felt oddly smitten as the diva squeezed in between me and the guy with the dilated pupils, who grumbled at the intrusion. There was really nowhere else for the diva to go, so we just sat, squished.

The diva commented appreciatively about my afro and my Hello Kitty boots, before snapping two fingers and waving the index one at me like a sista and said, “You go girl.”

The woman behind the desk announced that the electronic benefits transfer machine was still broken and that people waiting for a new card would have to come back another day. Many people grumbled, though the loudest was the diva, who began to yell, “Exploitative! Exploitative!”

Security approached, which convinced the “diva” to simmer down a bit. But without a card for weeks, he — or she — said this was the third day in a row that the machine was broken, and asked a perfectly reasonable question: “How am I supposed to eat?”

We could make more money, live in a bigger house, ride in a newer car and enjoy other benefits of a lower cost of living. Life would be easier in some ways — but it wouldn’t be in Hawaii.

I made a vow to myself to one day get myself into a position to feed such people, and bring about some sort of significant changes. More immediately, rather than continue to wait, I requested a phone interview. They expressed understanding when I explained that “my immune system could not be exposed to so many elements for too long.” Yes, I pulled out the cancer card because I don’t like being around lots of germs for too long.

Outside, there were a few men who reeked of alcohol even though it was still the morning. One of them asked me for a hug. I realized I hadn’t dressed down enough, and I politely declined before heading toward the safety of a FedEx store.

Snap!

I later got my SNAP phone interview. The interviewer crunched the numbers in various ways. We had sunk low, but were still not poor enough in Hawaii to qualify for SNAP or WIC, which is a supplemental nutrition program for women and children. I asked the woman to crunch the numbers again, and then again. But no, I am a sort of Welfare-reject.

I thought: Really, did that just happen? We have an ever-growing pile of medical bills, two small children, rent and utilities, and we didn’t make the cut.

I began to think of some of the people I saw who did receive food stamps — including college students, immigrants and legacy recipients — and wondered how our situation compared. I was frustrated, and mad.

But I was, in a weird way, also sort of proud and happy. I was glad to be too rich to qualify — even if I’m just rich enough to not be poor.

Who Am I?

Getting back to appearances, on the street these days as I wrangle my kids, I don’t dress and accessorize like a poor person. Some of my clothes date back to more prosperous times. I am thankful that when I invested in my wardrobe I bought good quality, timeless pieces that have lasted. It reminds me of another thing my father taught me: “Quality, not quantity.”

Cora Spearman's children

Spearman’s two children pose on a beach in Kailua.

Lisa Hoang

In my mind and in my heart, I am wealthier today than I was when I made what I now realize was a lot of money. After all I am healthy, happy, and I do what I love, which is design and sell stylish children’s clothes.

Yes we could escape the high cost of living in the islands and move somewhere else. We could make more money, live in a bigger house, ride in a newer car and enjoy other benefits of a lower cost of living. Life would be easier in some ways — but it wouldn’t be in Hawaii.

Life — including surviving my cancer, losing so much and rebounding — has taught me a lot of things. It has taught me to budget, and to love doing it. I have learned that some things in life can’t be planned for. I have come to understand that I am a survivor who relishes my luxurious discount life in the islands.

I pondered such lessons recently when I took my daughters to the Children’s Discovery Center in Kakaako, which is surrounded by a homeless encampment. Kids who live in tents there looked in through the windows of a museum they can’t afford to visit.

It reminded me of all that we have, and that I can provide some things for our children. It also made clear to me that I want to get back to being able to help others more.

I thank those kids. Their lessons were priceless. And one day I hope to pay them back.

Do you have a story about the human impact of the cost of living in the islands? If so, click on the red pencil button to share it through Connections, or drop a note to epape@civilbeat.com.

And join Civil Beat’s Facebook group on the cost of living in Hawaii to continue the conversation about this story, or to discuss broader practical and political solutions for the islands.