Poverty. It's a word we associate with other people, who most likely live in huts and drink dirty water. Or we think of urban poverty, with crime and dirty streets and chain link fences. Poverty - being poor - is not something that we do. Until we do.
When I read a beautiful piece by Kathleen Kerridge, called The Upsetting Reality About Modern Day Poverty, I was moved because I recognized the experience. I lived it. And I realized that unlike Kerridge, I had not been brave enough to "come out" with the fact that I too have lived through a period of great poverty. But I am not alone; 45 million Americans live below the poverty line. Who are these invisible people? Are you one of them?
Living in poverty teaches you a lot about yourself, but actually it teaches you a whole lot about others. About society. About how poverty in our post Greed is Good world is viewed as a moral failure. A simple mistake that can be corrected but that for some reason the Poor One is stupidly or lazily just not taking care of. As if they have actively shirked responsibility and should not have had that child or taken that risk or made that mistake. As if they relish asking for your help, or living with gnawing fear every day and every night of every week of every month.
It is not particularly empowering to learn how much you do not need, but it is enlightening. It's like having dined on half meals for a lifetime, tossing the rest onto the floor and now having a new perspective of what lies discarded: mountains of clothes, shoes, time, things you have wasted just because you could. Going shopping when in reality your pantry holds enough food that if combined and used creatively could feed you for two weeks. Tossing out clothing instead of repairing it. Buying trinkets out of amusement and never using them. Buying books you don't read, pretty pens you lose the next day, new cosmetics when yours are still full. A cluttered path of stuff and things unused, discarded. If only you could have all those things back and stuff them into a drawer somewhere. If only.
Being poor teaches you how to truly assess the worth of things and your relationship to that thing. Do I really need this? Is there another way I can make this work? Most of the time there is. But sometimes there's really not. Sometimes you need new shoes and you go to a shopping mall and suddenly feel like some lost tribe member of the Amazon - overwhelmed by the luxury, the muchness, the things - stores upon stores - with people going in and out of them with bags and more bags. You look in wonder. You used to do that. What was in your bags? You don't even remember. You wiggle your toe under the piece of electrical tape inside your shoe meant to cover up the hole and duck out of the mall, too ashamed to be there. You'll have to go buy cheap shoes on the street somewhere and you'll need to replace them too. You're too poor to buy good things that last. Wryly, as you walk past security again, you think this ain't no disco, this ain't no Barbara Ehrenreich experiment. This ain't no foolin' around. But your chuckle dies on your lips.
This is not you. This is not your family. This is bizarro-world, a crazy Willie Wonka ride on a psychedelic river. What happened? Big things, things bigger than you, economic crashes like icebergs sliding into the sea happened. Far from you. Investments happened, investments in things that seemed like really good things until invisible forces tore them apart. Age happened, age happened when what you stood on before has melted off and drifted away and you wake up to a new world in which your skills will need to be re-imagined, re-directed and this will take time.
What's most interesting about poverty is not how creative you can become with things like electrical tape, super glue or a needle and thread. What's interesting is not how little you actually need to spend on groceries once you've given up the luxury of meat. What's interesting is the shame that comes with it. Shame generated by the responses one is met with, the puzzled looks, the distance that begins to appear between you and others. Are you still having problems? Did you try this? Did you try that? Have you thought of this? Yes, you have, yes and yes and yes. No, I'm still struggling because I like this. I like anxiety, worry and fear every day all day. I like doing without things like new sheets, new shoes or a meal out. I like it. That's why this is still happening.
When you live in poverty, your world becomes very small. You have much less agency and no latitude, leverage or choices. It grinds you down to a nub because it's so relentless. Not just the pretending to not want a coffee at the cafe - Whoo! Already had enough today! - but maintaining a balancing act every minute of every day, like walking through a minefield. People who love you have many suggestions of things you could and should do better - that they would do if they were you. I mean, do you go on job interviews? Have you polished up your resume?
I am fortunate. I have been fortunate my entire life, to have lived with everything that I have needed and much more. I am fortunate because for me, going through a period of poverty was an experience - not a lifetime. But it is an experience that changed me and my attitudes toward it forever. Because poverty perpetuates itself. It's a horrible limbo of how low can you go. People who are poor are not stupid, lazy or inept. They are caught in circumstances, temporary or over a lifetime, that keep pushing them underwater financially, emotionally and ultimately spiritually.
If you have never been truly poor - not "broke", not in-between jobs, but poor over a period of time, you know this. You know the grinding feeling, the hopelessness. The scraped knees from being that close to the road. But you are not special. I learned that about myself. I am not dumber or lazier or more inept than anybody else. Sometimes circumstances line up just right and if you happen to be in the right place at the wrong time - poverty has your number and down you go and like a person in a stampede, down you stay.
I have new respect - enormous, indescribable respect for those who have risen from poverty. For anybody to be successful, it takes ingenuity, hard work and persistence. For someone who is poor to become successful, it takes faith, miracles and courage beyond measure.
I suspect that the economic crash in 2008 and subsequent anaemia have created a whole new strata of the New Poor. People for whom this is a bizarre experience, people who think this is not me. This is not my family. This is not happening. It realigns your idea of who you are, what money means, what it is and is not capable of and how very slippery security is. It exhausts you and no, there are no ennobling side effects. Nobody is going to make a movie about you.
Being poor gives you new respect - no - awe - for the billions of people all over the world for whom poverty is a total, lifelong, 360-degree reality. People who nonetheless smile, laugh, make music, cook, love and hope. People who carry on. But being poor does not mean you are spiritually superior or wiser than anybody else. No, it's just terrible. Money doesn't buy happiness but money does buy a full belly and the feeling of peace, of having your basic needs met, and that brings a feeling of expansiveness, of possibility, of optimism.
If you are poor, whether that is newly so or over time, you should talk about it. Don't be ashamed; ask for the help you need from organisations, friends and family members. When you get the veiled questions about whether or not you are actually doing anything to improve your situation, consider this a teachable moment about human dignity. If you know someone who is struggling, bring the a week's worth of groceries and cook with them. Love them. Believe in them. Lend them money if you can. Be there for them. Because there but the grace of God go you. Trust me.