Explaining "Working Poor" to My Privileged, Middle Class Children

04/20/2015 01:58 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015
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For my privileged, perhaps overly comfortable children, something as trivial as our internet being down constitutes a crisis. When we do our "gratitude inventory" (aka, a way to get them to reflect and pray), they rattle off things as a matter of routine that many people would only dream of.

So how do I explain something as alien and complex as a state of being part of the working poor in a way they can have a at least a chance to internalize?

This was part of my goal in taking on My Jesus Project, a year-long endeavor to more deeply understand what we mean when we talk about following Jesus: to move from ignorance to empathy, which can only be achieved sometimes through direct, personal experiences.

For a month, I was assigned by one of my "Jesus Mentors" to go out of my way to walk and/or take public transportation to get places, with the intention that I would come into contact with people I might otherwise miss or overlook. As I did it, I realized my kids could benefit from it as well.

The first sign that they needed such an experience was that, when I announced to them we were taking the bus and train to do our family activities one weekend, they were excited. It was a new experience for them, rather than a necessity. As for the mile-long walks to get from place to place when the transit system didn't get us exactly where we were going, they were a little less thrilled with that. And yet, we slowed down more, spent more time talking, and while on the public systems I noticed we looked each other in the eye a lot more, rather than all facing forward (with the kinds inevitably with their faces fixed on a screen) in the car.

My son, Mattias, who is on the high end of the autism spectrum, is a keen observer, and I suppose a natural byproduct of that is that he asks questions. A lot of questions.

"Dad," he said, after jumping off the final leg of the bus route one day, "why were some of the people sleeping on the bus?"

"Different reasons," I said. "I think some of them usually live outside, so riding the bus is actually a lot more comfortable than sleeping in a stairwell or on a park bench. Especially when it's raining." Because we do serve at a downtown church in Portland, where the number of people living outside is inordinately high, they do come into contact with them on a weekly basis. And yet, it's still hard for them to imagine that these friends of ours really don't have a choice about where to sleep.

"So, like, they really don't have anyplace else to go?"

"Some of them, yeah," I said.

"But some of them that were sleeping didn't look homeless at all," he said.

"Right," I said. "Some of them are going to, or coming home from, work."

"Why don't they just work closer to home so they can get more sleep?"

"Lots of people have to take jobs wherever they can get them" I said. "Sometimes they can't find good paying jobs where they can also find an affordable place to live. And some of them have to work more than one job."

"What for?" he asked.

"Well," I said, "think about it this way. Say you work full time and you make $500 a week..."

"Wow," his eyes widened," that's a ton of money."

"To you, yeah," I said, "but then remember, if they have kids, they have to pay a babysitter, that might be $150 or more of that. Plus maybe $200 toward rent." I could see his brain working away.

"So they still have $150 left. That's pretty good."

"Except," I said, they haven't paid for food yet. That's probably $100 if they have a family. Then there's electricity, water, gas. So figure that's maybe another $75 a week."

"But," he scowled, "that's more than they made already. And what about clothes and medicine and stuff?"

"Right," I said. So what would they need to do?"

"Get another job?"

"Probably," I said. "But then they have to pay a babysitter more. And you have to consider that a lot of people who live in more affordable housing also live in a food desert."

"A what?'

"A food desert," I said, "means that there aren't healthy choices near your house where you can get good food for your family. So you end up either eating fast food or taking the bus or train even more to get the food you want."

"Which means more babysitting," he said.

"And more time away from home," I said. "So if someone needs to work another part-time job in addition to their full-time job, that's, say 12 hours a day right there. Plus figure another hour and a half for transportation, grocery shopping, spending at least a little bit of time with their partner or kids..."

"No wonder they're tired," he said in quiet bewilderment. "That's just not fair."

It all reminded me of when I worked in a Title 1 school in southern Colorado where the student turnover rate was more than 100 percent per year, mainly because families sometimes would have to move a couple of times during the school year, either because they couldn't make rent, or because the good will of friends or family had worn thin. The reason my company had been brought in was because only fourteen percent of their students were deemed proficient according to state standards, and only two percent met the writing goals. The school was at risk of losing their federal funding, which likely would mean the school would be shut down.

In particular, I thought about a beautiful girl, who I'll call Maria. She had been labeled as "special needs" by the district, though I wasn't sure why. At least until I spent some time testing her myself. Maria was kind, soft-spoken and plenty bright. But as I went through the first questions of our assessment, her eyes would droop and eventually close all together.

"Maria," I said, "Did you not get enough sleep?" She nodded groggily, and then explained that her mom lived with her fiance who, though made sure they had shelter, was terribly abusive toward her mother. She explained that her mother and he had fought all night after she told him his friends needed to leave and turn off their music at midnight so the kids could sleep.

"He yells at her," she said, "a lot. And when he grabs her, he throws her against the wall of my room. And when I went to school, there wasn't anything to eat. I'm sorry mister Christian, but I just can't stay awake."

Mattias is right; sometimes it's just not fair.

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