There has been a lot of talk in our society lately about being poor. About welfare. About what being poor really means. About why people are poor.
I won’t even start to go into the whole “privilege” discussion. I will just touch on it. Anyone out there who doesn’t truly believe that their family/background/schooling/race/gender/neighborhood/church effected their entire life – the way they ended up – I can’t change their minds. But please know, I truly know deep deep down in my soul that if I had not had the things I had as a child/young adult, I would not be who I am today. If I had been born a different color or in a different country or in a different state/city/part of the world, I would not be who I am today. I barely – BARELY – made it to this point in my life. And I had all the help anyone could ever want. I am sure I would be on the streets, on drugs, doing god-knows-what to get by if I had not come from where I came from. If I had not been born white, middle class, in a small middle class town in a white middle class state. If my parents hadn’t been able to bail me out of trouble hundreds of times – I would not be the me I am today. I was not mentally/emotionally/chemically equipped to do what I needed to do in life. And I was “lucky, privileged, blessed.”
Beyond that, I also never knew what it was like to be truly poor. I never even KNEW that I didn’t know what it was like until I married my sweet husband. When I married him I had a single apartment in my own name. I didn’t have cable, I didn’t have a nice car, I didn’t have the internet, and I had a broken down second hand computer that I had used at one point to work on college classes. That I dropped out of. I always had food, once in a while the lights or water bill were a little late. A few years before that I had been evicted, and lived with a lady who turned out to be a crack addict. She stole our rent money and we were evicted again. I didn’t always have a phone. I didn’t always have what I really wanted. But I had a roof and I had food. If I was evicted I had friends to shelter me. Or I could have gone home. I had a car to go to work when I finally figured out the whole “YOU HAVE TO GO TO WORK EVERY DAY OR YOU GET FIRED” thing. I had some friends that helped me out and my parents helped me get my new apartment and gave me a car my brother was done with and paid insurance on it and sent me money when I needed it. THAT got me out of the gutter/slump/craziness… Not everyone has that. Actually, I dare say, MOST people don’t have that.
But when I met my husband I realized I had no idea what poor was.
He would not want me to share everything about his life. He is a modest and proud man. His family is wonderful – they have all helped each other out when they needed it most. His neighbors, his community – they all help each other.
My husband spent his early years in Georgia – of the former Soviet Union. When his parents got married it was a time of prosperity. His mother’s family had a big house, held big dinner parties. She tells me how her dad had china for 200 people for weddings and such. When my husband was a child they took summer vacations in the mountains at a summer house. They all had more than they needed. This was during communism. They had jobs, they had a little more than what was comfortable. Then Georgia was embattled in a civil war. Everyone he knew lost everything they had. There were times there was not enough food, or enough heat or any electricity. His friend has told me they would sneak into the government orchards to steal fruit for their families. His father moved to Russia to find work and eventually was able to bring his family over. They lived 3-4 families in what we would call a studio apartment. He showed me the apartments when we were there. It was hard for me to see. Times were much harder. The soviet union was falling. People didn’t have enough work. His dad was a hard worker, but things were more expensive and they didn’t always have what they needed. His family is Armenian and finding jobs there is tough for Armenians – even today. Especially jobs that pay a living wage. At some point his dad couldn’t work anymore. He had heart problems. His mom worked, my husband worked, his brother worked when he was old enough. His dad made wine and sold it for a little extra money. They had what they NEEDED – food and clothing and shelter. But truly, that was all. He did not have a lot of toys. Sometimes none. He did not have tv or computers or games. He did not go on vacations. He had a full belly, and a family that loved him, and went to school. And that was enough. His family still lives in what we would consider poverty. They bought a piece of land, intending to build a house on it. But his father needed heart surgery which they had to spend their life savings on (and borrow for), and the economy got even worse. They live in a trailer now. They have an outhouse. They have an outdoor shower and sink. They have what they need. Heat, water, electricity, food. But they don’t have what they want.
And still, they are better off than many there. The conditions I saw appalled me. There was a homeless man who lived in the “dump” area near the family house. There were people living in houses made out of half of a grain silo on it’s side with dirt floors, sharing the space with their pigs and goats and chickens so they would stay warm or cool in the weather, no electricity, running water, or toilet. I think for heat they used a wood fire place. There was no where to let the smoke out. There were children who lived down the street who came to play. Their father drank too much, they lived with about 4 families in the same home – their grandparents home. They had no toys at all. They wore the same clothes every day. Their mother was potty training the 10 month old because diapers are too expensive. When they came to play with the toys people had brought for my 18 month old, they were so careful with them. Treated them like precious items. They loved to have something to play with. The older boy would come by once a day and ask for a cup of sugar or flour or some tea. Here is my mother in law who has just enough, generously giving to the neighbor who has nothing.
I read this ^ today. It tugged at my heart. It is a well written “story” of what being poor in America is. This is being poor in our country. Please read it, it puts things in perspective. But even this is nothing compared to what I saw in parts of Russia, or what my brother saw in parts of Peru. Don’t get me wrong – some people are very well off there. The neighborhood his parents have their land and trailer in has very lovely big houses. His uncle has a beautiful house, with plenty of room for the family and even grandma to come stay. There is a lovely lovely garden with fruit and grapes and vegetables. But some people just get by. And some people don’t even do that.
I challenge all of us to try to remember that being poor is not what we might think it is. Being poor is not always the fault of the person who is poor. Being poor is sometimes beyond control. We are taught that being poor is a defect – that being poor is a product of lazy, stupid people who would rather live in slums worrying about dropping the bowl of macaroni on the floor instead of “trying to get out of that situation”. This is untrue. If I think about when I was poor, I think about it this way: me being poor was “easier” than someone who was born poor in a “bad” neighborhood, without an education or family support, who was brought up around gangs and domestic violence and drugs being poor. Picture us both climbing a mountain – the same mountain, but I started out about 100 yards up the mountain and have tools to climb with, while the person born into different circumstances has to start lower, has no tools, hasn’t been taught how to climb. Possibly doesn’t have the right clothing or shoes or even a water bottle. Maybe they don’t even know where they are trying to climb to.
People like to talk about how anyone in this country can get ahead with a little hard work and perseverance. And luck. It simply isn’t that easy. This dialogue has to change. People have to challenge their idea of what poor is, what the causes and what the reasons are. Only then will we be able to make a change. Only then can we really help people. Only then can we change the “broken welfare system” that keeps people alive. I agree, it needs to be changed. There has to be a way to make it easier for people to get off welfare, to progress, to climb. But we can not change it until people REALIZE the problem. Until people start to see what really needs to be done.