Monday, October 4, 2010

Poverty

Every now and then I run across people who make nasty remarks about low-income families and the children being raised in them. And the remarks are even nastier for children growing up in poverty in a single-parent household. Sadly, some of the people making these remarks are familiar to me. Take, for example, a very old friend of mine who once said to me over the phone “All the worst kids – drug addicts, criminals, troublemakers - emerge from poor homes, or from poor homes where they’re being raised by a single-parent.”

I couldn’t believe my ears when she said this, particularly because it hit very close to home. For one thing, I grew up in a low-income household and - according to her - should have turned out quite badly. And at the time of the remark, I was a single, low-income earning parent. My own children, therefore, were condemned to a life of substance abuse, crime and turmoil because of our lifestyle. If I shared her philosophy, I’d have thrown in the towel right then and there and let nature take its course. After all, why fight the inevitable? If you’re doomed, you’re doomed.


The funny thing is that we shared a similar background; we both grew up in poor, working class homes. And she, like many of the other kids that I grew up with in the same region and in similar conditions, moved up and away from her origins. And that’s great. But instead of valuing the progress while still remembering what it’s like to live in more difficult times so she may empathize with the struggles other individuals face, she completely discarded her past and was repulsed by it. She not only mentally obliterated that period, hoping that by doing so she could pretend it never happened, she was resentful towards everything and everyone that reminded her of it. And still is.

To dislike a situation you’re in - or was once in - is one thing (no one wants to live in poverty), but to assign those negative feelings to specific individuals is quite another. Then it gets too personal. But that’s the way it is with her. In her mind and the minds of many others I've run across, the underprivileged are diseased, infected with some debilitating virus that, if acknowledged, will spread quickly through the population. Coming in close contact with anyone or anything contaminated by poverty is unthinkable because it’s a repulsive affliction that may be contagious. And the result of the contamination is the manufacturing of misfits, delinquents, drug addicts, high school dropouts, alcoholics, gang members, pushers, prostitutes, criminals and an assortment of other degenerates.

What a load of crap.

These types of individuals are so desperate to disengage from a past that they’re horribly ashamed of that they angrily lash out at the people that remind them of it; people who are living in – and contaminated by – poverty. With an attitude of superiority, they endorse prejudices and misconceptions about a certain lifestyle and a group of people that they wish didn’t exist, because if they didn’t exist, neither would their shameful pasts.


My friend is ashamed of how she lived and where she came from. In order to feel more comfortable in her new life, she has chosen to detach herself completely from her own early years, from her ‘low-income’ years. And if she is ashamed of her own upbringing, then she is ashamed and embarrassed by and for the people living the life she’s so eager to forget. Keeping a safe distance is simply a way of not being reminded of it. She consciously chose to forget what she thinks is a humiliating existence. In essence, connecting in any way to the less fortunate is a way of confirming that she lived amongst them. And even more horrifying than that is admitting that not only was she surrounded by them but that she was actually one of them: a group of degenerates.

It’s sad, really, that someone feels this way about human beings in less fortunate situations, many of which are hard working and doing the best they can. Poverty is not a disease and the people involved and their loves ones are not condemned to a life of crime and misfortune. Nor are they less valuable. We are measured by who we are not by what we have.

As for me, I’ve never felt ashamed of my early years or felt awkward talking about them. If I did, then I would also be ashamed of the hardworking, honest and loving parents who raised me, nurtured me and, by example, taught me good morals and values.

Embarrassed by past? Not a chance. I am proud of where I come from. It has shaped the person I am today.

7 comments:

  1. Great post. Whatever my wife and I have humbly achieved in life is due in most part to our parents. A friend once wondered why my wife would tell stories about her father's earlier jobs. She claimed that to keep this a secret would be to belittle what her father had achieved and that she is proud and not at all ashamed.

    Telling stories only proves how hard our parents worked to enable us. My wife and I hope that one day our children will likewise be as proud. I'm sure your children are just as proud about you and your achievements.

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  2. I'm guessing this sort of thing is going to get worse, as the economy continues to flop around like a fish on a hot dock. People need to believe that the poor deserve to be poor, and that they themselves can never become poor (all the more important if one comes from poverty in the first place). If you can convince yourself that everybody has exactly the amount of money they deserve (except for yourself: you always deserve just a little bit more than what you actually have), then there's no need to feel guilty about the unjust state of things, no need to try to help anybody out, no need to think about it at all.

    A friend of mine was TAing an introductory philosophy class several years ago. The class was discussing an essay that said, basically, that Americans are all a bunch of hypocrites, that if we actually cared as much about the sanctity of life and being kind to other people and etc. as we say we do, we'd be giving all our disposable income to people in third world countries, to buy food and medicine with and so forth.

    The students then had to write essays reacting to the one they'd read. My friend said that one of them basically argued that if it was so hard to grow crops in Africa, then the people who lived there should just move somewhere else. Sit for a minute and try to unpack all the wrongness of that statement.

    And yet it made perfect sense to the (18-year-old, white, male, midwestern) student who said it, and likely would make sense to lots more Americans, because blaming the victims for not moving to a more agriculturally-productive location makes it their fault.

    Human beings are really pretty appalling if you look at them closely.

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  3. A wonderful and well-written post, Martha. My family is low-income, but we've always taught our children that true poverty is a poverty of compassion and kindness and that what's most important is what you hold in your heart, not in your wallet. What a pity that so many stereotype others and judge them by their bank accounts! You are richly blessed to have had parents that taught you what was REALLY important, and your children are blessed that you have done the same for them. I thank you for expressing such an important truth in this post. Well-said!

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  4. I too come from a low-income background, my parents having moved here with the clothes on their backs. I don't hide the fact, and in that way that kids have, I often didn't feel the lack. I mean sometimes we couldn't have X or Y and do things other kids could, but we usually didn't feel too deprived about it. Now I make a pretty good income and don't hide that either. The money I earn is not who I am.

    As far as Mr. Subjunctive, I'd like to take a class like that myself. I'm often conflicted on my views on poverty, or at least how we handle it as a society. I guess being fairly libertarian I feel like it's up to people and charities to help others, rather than using the government with their stolen tax dollars from everyone to alleviate poverty. I don't want to feel compelled to help others at the threat of violence (which is what taxes really are), but I do voluntarily donate my time and money as I see fit.

    I also think if we want to discuss morals, that we currently, right now, produce enough food to feed everyone on the planet, twice. It's just that for funny reasons none of it seems to make it to its intended destinations. And until THAT bit of corruption is stamped out, I don't feel compelled to give more to the bottomless pit. At the same time I support tax payer funded health care and education, but feel like that's where it should end. Like I said, conflicted. :)

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  5. Bom, you and your wife sound like good people. And your wife is right not to belittle her father's earlier jobs. There is no shame in honest work. Most of the parents I knew when I was growing up had the less glamorous jobs, but they didn't care; they were happy getting a regular pay, and providing for their families.

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    Mr. S, you are probably right about things getting worse, which is really sad. And I tend to agree with the statement you made above: "Human beings are really pretty appalling if you look at them closely"; I often think that myself.

    You know, it's easy for people sitting in a coffee shop - sipping their coffee with its whipped cream topping - to give advice to people in dire situations. Their lives are very easy, they've never experienced any hardship, and they have no idea what it's like to be living that way. No idea. to even think for just a moment that people can just get up and move (and that it's that easy) is really just ignorance. I think the best thing for these types of people is for them to be placed in a difficult situation for, let's say, a year and see how they do. I think 6 months may be enough.

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    Tatiana,

    I know there is a lot of corruption out there, so you have to be well-informed when you decide where to donate your money, and your time. A lot of people stop contributing to charities because they think their donations are not going where they're supposed to. But if you take the time to ask the right questions, and basically do your homework, you can find organizations that are dedicated to helping others. As for taxes, I don't believe in big government; I believe in a small and efficient government that is dedicated to the population as whole. For example, taxes that go towards building and maintaining our infrastructure, our health and educational institutions, our police force, our fire department and certain social safety nets, and a few other things that I can't think of off the top of my head, are all good things. The problem begins when the government gets too big, which inevitably leads to corruption and inefficiency.

    I'll have to write more about these topics later on. Perhaps next week I can write about charities and how I feel about supporting them.

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    Beth,

    I've never felt deprived of anything in my life. I've gone forward at times, and even backwards at times. I take it as it comes. What I've always had is a loving family that no amount of money in the world could replace. I'll take that over material goods, anytime.

    I have no doubt that you are teaching your children wonderful things. You are a great role model, and they will grow to be as compassionate and loving as you are. And the world could use more people like that.

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  6. Very good post Martha! My daughter fell into a stereotypical down and dirty situation through no fault of her own. Despite being lower income ourselves, we taught our children that an open mind, ambition and education were all important. This philosophy allowed my daughter to pull herself and her two small children out of a dirty situation, get an education, an excellent recession safe job and recently a wonderful new husband.

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  7. That's terrific, anonymous. I love happy endings. Sometimes all it takes is a little effort to get to a better place. I'm glad your daughter found so much happiness.

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