I've been struck lately by how misguided our prevailing societal images still are of the people we call "low-income" or "poor." (This election season's "welfare queen" -- throwback debate about food stamps comes to mind.) And this is despite the fact that nearly a third of the U.S. population now falls into these categories and despite the fact that we've all lived through this recession together, and we've all felt the fear and anxiety that accompanies great economic uncertainty.
Somehow we seem to have decided that the answer to getting over the inevitable shaky ground moments in life should be different for a person of economic privilege than it is for a person of low or moderate income. We've all had moments of panic, when we can't figure out which way is up, whether it's facing a health challenge, a divorce, finding childcare in a pinch, or taking care of a sick family member. That feeling, "How can I possibly get through this?" is something we all go through, regardless of race or socioeconomic status. It's a human feeling.
I'm the first to admit that in my own life, when I've faced shaky ground moments (and being a first-time mom of a 1-year-old, there have been a lot in the last year), I've needed an enormous amount of support. I've leaned on large networks of people -- unpaid and paid, offline and online -- to garner suggestions, words of advice, references and resources. But I never get dinged for not being "self-sufficient" or "independent." In fact, because of my position of privilege, I'm often praised for being resourceful.
Sadly, the people too often deemed "moochers" or "dependents" by public figures are the extraordinarily determined and resilient people who walk through LIFT's doors every day. For 13 years, LIFT has helped thousands of individuals and families (mostly low-income and poor) weather potentially devastating situations. What we've learned in that time is that our clients need only the same things that we need: people around us who care, who encourage, who are willing to let us lean on them, who ask how they can help before they judge.
One of our clients is a woman named Special Terry. She worked in social services for the city of New York, was close to earning her master's degree, and seemingly had it all together. But after a series of budget cuts at the peak of the recession, she found herself without a job and healthcare insurance for herself and her three children. Suddenly she had landed on the other side of the food stamp line, and she quite naturally felt defeated, shaken.
She was embarrassed that she needed help, but she did. At LIFT, we helped connect her to food assistance, health insurance and a job search plan that led to a new job. But the most important part of her experience with LIFT, as she told us afterwards, was that LIFT's network of people treated her with dignity and respect throughout the process. "When people lose their jobs and go to agencies," she told us, "they kind of view you like you're a loser." We never viewed her that way, and she could feel that. She was somebody who had fallen off of a cliff in the same way that any of us can fall off of a cliff, and because she didn't have readily available networks of people around her to rely on, she needed to lean on us. That is a critical piece of what we do at LIFT: provide the same kind of networks for support and success that the more privileged in our society take for granted.
Today, Special has her master's degree in education and is working as the community coordinator for the New York City Department of Homeless Services. Having almost faced homelessness herself, she wanted to pay it forward and help people who found themselves in similar situations. She's also starting an effort to integrate formerly incarcerated people back into her home neighborhood in the North Bronx.
The point I most want to make is that none of us makes it in life alone. To deny that people of relative privilege haven't had helping hands along the way -- the right connections, the right friend, or simply what money can provide -- is to draw a false distinction. It's a distinction that gets in the way of how we talk about poverty in this country. "Poor" people don't need anything different from what anybody else needs. The faster we recognize that, and build our social programs in accordance with it, the more good we'll be able to do.