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Have you ever personally experienced poverty?

The closest I came, I think, was when I was just beginning my career in the ministry. The grand total of the salary my little rural church paid me was $6000. Of course, that was 1976, and it would be true to say that “$6000 was worth a whole lot more back then.” But in context, it wasn’t really worth that much more. Six-thousand dollars then was worth about $25,000 today—just over what annual minimum wage will earn you. And what I remember was living on such a strict budget that, after I’d paid all my regular monthly obligations, I had a “mad money” balance of $14 that I was free to spend on discretionary items—which might include anything from a newspaper to a box of Girl Scout cookies to a new tube of toothpaste.

I remember never being able to hold myself to that $14 monthly limit, as there was always something that would come up. I always felt myself sinking . . . .

But that wasn’t true poverty. For one thing, I was secure in the knowledge I had a back-up if a true financial emergency arose. I had parents and other relatives who would help me if I ever asked. I never did, being almost rabid in my need to feel self-sufficient and build my independence. But I have to admit that so much of my ability to endure the anxieties of those times came because my confidence was built on the knowledge I had well-heeled others who would care for me.

The truly poor have no such others. In many cases, what family and friends they may have are just as poor as they are. Hence, there is no confidence that can be engendered from knowing that if a set-back happens it need not develop into a crisis because there will always be a fall-back to bail them out.

Indeed, precisely because they have no fall-back, even the slightest setbacks can easily erupt into crises. What might be only inconveniences for us who have the wherewithal to handle them can snowball for them into full-blown calamity.

Linda Tirado in her autobiographical Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, offers dozens of personal illustrations of how this is so. For example:hand to mouth

I once lost a whole truck over a few hundred bucks. It had been towed, and when I called the company they told me they’d need a few hundred dollars for the fee. I didn’t have a few hundred dollars. So I told them when I got paid next and that I’d call back then.            

It was a huge pain in the ass for those days. It was the rainy season, and I wound up walking to work, adding another six miles or so a day to my imaginary pedometer. It was my own fault that I’d been towed, really, and I spent more than a couple hours ruing myself. I finally made it to payday, and when I went to get the truck, they told me that I now owed over a thousand dollars, nearly triple my paycheck. They charged a couple hundred dollars a day in storage fees. I explained that I didn’t have that kind of money, couldn’t even get it. They told me that I had some few months to get it together, including the storage for however long it took me to get it back, or that they’d simply sell it. They would, of course, give me any money above and beyond their fees if they recovered that much.

I was working two jobs at the time. Both were part time. Neither paid a hundred bucks a day, much less two.

I wound up losing my jobs. So did my husband. We couldn’t get from point A to point B quickly enough, and we showed up to work, late, either soaked to the skin or sweating like pigs one too many times. And with no work, we wound up losing our apartment.

She goes on to say:

Because our lives seem so unstable, poor people are often seen as being basically incompetent at managing their lives. That is, it’s assumed that we’re not unstable because we’re poor, we’re poor because we’re unstable. So let’s just talk about how impossible it is to keep your life from spiraling out of control when you have no financial cushion whatsoever. . .

. . . [W]e know the value of money. We work for ours. If we’re at 10 bucks an hour, we earn 83 cents, before taxes, every five minutes. We know exactly what a dollar’s worth; it’s counted in how many more times you have to duck and bend sideways out the drive through window. Or how many floors you can vacuum, or how many boxes you can fill.

It’s impossible to win, unless you are very lucky. For you to start to do better, something has to go right—and stay that way for long enough for you to get on your feet. I’ve done well in years that I had a job I didn’t mind terribly and that paid me well enough to get into an apartment that met all the basic standards. I’ve done less well in years where I didn’t have steady work. The trouble’s been that my luck simply hasn’t held out for long enough; it seems like just when I’ve caught up, something happens to set me back again. I’ve been fortunate enough that it’s rarely compounded, and I’ve stayed at under sea level for short periods instead of long-term. But I’ve stared long-term in the face long enough to have accepted it as a real possibility. It’s only an accident and a period of unemployment away.

This is the reality of living as a poor person in America. So when we have politicians who say, “Maybe if those folks would just forego buying the newest i-Phone, they might be able to afford health care,” you want to say, “Stop just talking to your buds in the frat house and go on down to talk to those staying in the halfway house, and see what life among the struggling is really all about.” And imagine how much more the crises of the poor will be multiplied if, as current policymakers would have it, Meals on Wheels, school lunch programs, home energy assistance and housing subsidies are all eliminated.

The Congressional Budget Office, in its analysis of the proposed legislation to replace the Affordable Care Act, has concluded that the new law could end up saving Social Security as much as $3 billion. But that’s because as many as 17,000 could die in 2018 because of the law, removing them from the roles.

It is clear that now, more than ever, the poor need those who “have their backs.”

>We need to join together to keep the light shining.