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The Journey to Very Poor

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Five years ago, I started my journey to very poor. I was pregnant, and while expecting, my son was diagnosed with Down syndrome. My relationship with his father ended after our son's birth, when I decided to be a stay-at-home mom. With the end of my paychecks, the pressing need for money was more pressure than he could bear. This was the scariest decision I ever made -- to become a stay-at-home single parent for a child with special needs; a choice that would change the trajectory of my life forever.

In the first few years of my son's life there were endless appointments -- doctors, speech therapists, occupational therapists, behavioral therapists and a bevy of others. If it were not for the financial and emotional support I receive from his father and my friends and family, my son and I would probably be homeless by now. What also helps a great deal is support we receive from social service programs like Regional Center, Medi-Cal and Social Security. And with all of the support we receive from so many sources, there have still been times when I've been so fearful of the unknowns we face that I have wanted to just stop breathing.

I decided to share the intimate experience of my journey after hearing Mitt Romney's statement that he did not care about the very poor because of the safety net provided for them. As one of the very poor (which includes too many single minority mothers) I heard his statement as not only a reflection of his lack of compassion, but also as a reflection of his inability to lead a nation where the divide between the impoverished and the wealthy continues to widen.

I have seen many sides of very poor. Having been born to a teenaged mother in the late '60s, I was raised in the harsh terrain that impoverished children often face, such as parental neglect, substance addiction, physical abuse, violence and shame. You name it, someone close to me or I experienced it firsthand.

If you've never known the very poor, you might think the greatest issue is money. Yes, the need for money and resources absorb much of the very poor's energy, but poverty is as much a condition of the heart as it is a reality of daily living. From Mr. Romney's comment about the safety net, I guess he thinks that the impoverished are essentially taken care of. I'm here to say he is deeply mistaken. In reality, the impoverished need the belief that they are worthy, necessary and capable of achieving their potential, even more than they need the safety net of government subsidies.

When I was eight years old, my teacher, Mrs. Brown, saw in me what wasn't being reflected to me in my home. She saw that I was good reader and an eager student, and she worked with my grandmother (who had already raised six children) to have me enrolled in a magnet-school program. And although I was a precocious and smart kid who exhibited the intelligence for a magnet education, poverty lived within me. And even as I was bussed to a middle-class community to get a better education, nothing seemed to convince me that I was as good as the little children who lived in the ranch-style homes with perfectly manicured lawns that surrounded the new school I attended. In hindsight, it seems that sending me to school out of my neighborhood just reinforced my deep feelings of shame and isolation.

Fast-forward thirty years. With tenacity, perseverance and great support, I have completed a bachelor's and a master's degree, and through circumstances of my own creation, I am again very poor. But today it's different. I have learned from the experience I had as a child and have chosen not to take my parents' missteps. They both died before I was thirty years old. My father was murdered, and my mother had a heart attack. Through education, I have learned how to traverse the rocky terrain of very poor that permeates every area of life and often shortens it. And our world has changed -- it's better, in that the necessities for living a peaceful, healthy life are more widely known. Unlike my parents, I understand that simple things like my attitude, the company I keep and the foods I eat will have a profound affect on my daily experience. Unlike my parents, I accept my choices as mine, and I do all I can to be a responsible steward of my resources. Unlike my parents, I do not believe I am a victim. The world is also more challenging than it was thirty years ago. There is greater societal pressure to conform -- and consume! Wealth seems to be valued more highly than ever, and families are less cohesive, as each member is out of the home working, rather than caring for themselves and one another.

In my present round of very poor I do my best to make choices that will support my son and me in living a productive life. With the food stamps I receive I shop at farmers markets and organic-food stores. I cook all our meals at home and I never (and I do mean never) eat or feed my son fast food or white sugar. A wholesome diet is important to help keep us both emotionally balanced, as depression goes hand in hand with poverty. I volunteer a few hours a week at a local yoga studio in exchange for free yoga classes. This is another way I stay healthy emotionally, mentally and physically. The result is a steady mood to handle the challenges of parenting. I also garden, and when I can, I ride my bike rather than drive (which is difficult in Los Angeles). I spend a great deal of time at home caring for my son and writing about this journey. I made my decision to become a stay-at-home mom -- and to again be very poor -- because I needed to learn about my son and what his needs would be. I didn't see how I could do that if I was away from the home for ten hours each day while a daycare worker looked after him. My desire is for my son to fulfill his potential, and being with him helps us discover what his true potential is. In this moment it seems limitless. He is the happiest child I have ever known and I am grateful.

"Very poor" are dirty words in this nation, and I have come to grips with the shame I once carried about being impoverished. As an adult, I accept full responsibility for the choices I've made, and see them as stepping stones for my son's and my emotional, mental and spiritual well being. I have also learned that very poor has much more to do with the spirit of a person than it does with the balance in his bank account. As we move into this upcoming election season, it is imperative that we consider the very poor. We, the very poor, are not invisible, and we add profound value to our society. Do we want to elect someone like Mitt Romney, who declares he's not concerned about the very poor? Do we want to elect someone who ignores the ways the very poor can contribute to our society and can shift our circumstances for our children and ourselves? Or do we want leadership that's concerned about the very poor's perpetual devaluation? President Obama has worked diligently to support the progress of the very poor and those hardest hit by the recession. With his tax reform program and the Earned Income Tax Credit, six million Americans have been lifted out of poverty. At the National Prayer Breakfast held last week, President Obama reiterated his belief that we must speak and care for those who are the least of us. President Obama understands that giving every American a fair opportunity helps us all prosper. As a country we rise and fall together.

This is our opportunity to realize we are intrinsically connected as a people. We are as strong as our weakest links. What we do to assist and heal the very poor, we do for ourselves. And currently our society neglects the resources it has in the minds and hearts of very poor children and adults. If Mitt Romney is not concerned about the very poor, he is missing an opportunity to do what a great leader can do. He is missing an opportunity to prove that under his leadership, the least of them can become the greatest of them. He is missing an opportunity to release the untapped potential of the very poor, to harness their power and value their gifts. My son and I are the very poor. We matter, we have a voice, and we have infinite gifts to offer our world.