Monday, April 28, 2014


We are a helpful people.  Have you noticed this about the human race? When there is war or famine or disease we often show up in droves. One grandmother used to point out during times of disaster what she dubbed 'the helpers.' This grandma was right wasn't she?  Shortly after every crisis we see some helpers show up.  She would remind her family to look for them, not to focus on the crisis focus on the good of humanity.  Usually they are not enough of them, but there are always people with heart.  Showing up doing their part to make the pain of what's before them lessen.  

Shortly thereafter follow the critics, the people who are telling everyone who is doing nothing that the people who are doing something are doing it wrong.  Then the critics usually turn on the people who need the help saying they aren't doing enough to help themselves.  I have found this attitude rampant in other areas in our helper/critic society.  This attitude is ever present toward the poor in first world countries.  From a point of blissful middle-class ignorance people sit in their mortgaged houses with their stocked refrigerators never having to consider visiting a food pantry for anything but a few volunteer hours and a pat on the back and they talk about the poor in this country like they know.  Like they've been there.  Like they're educated on what they should do and shouldn't be doing.  

You'll see things like this:

A quote from a CEO from a fashion company mocking our poor because they make $35,000 a year and in China they'd be rich.  All the while ignoring the fact that in China your $35,000 might feed your family but over here without the dreaded beast of the welfare system and some local ministries that worker making $35 grand is shit out of luck to feed and house his family of four. 

Or popular quotes on Facebook and other social media sites that say things like "What we really mean when we say we're poor in this country is that we're having difficulty maintaining our standard of living."

No actually that's not what we mean.  I say we because yes I consider myself poor financially.  Very much so.  I live on the edge of not being able to provide for my family on a weekly basis.  And I don't mean I can't provide for their standard of living as some smug middle class snob wants to think.  I mean I can't buy milk without counting quarters, regularly.  I mean I don't ever buy anyone birthday gifts other than my children.  I mean that the car insurance payment drafting out of my account and not bouncing it is a miracle.  

I'm not saying this because I want your pity or your help.  No I don't.  Not at all.  We are ok.  We have made it thus far and we will continue to make it.  But I want to give some of our more comfortable members of society an idea of what it's like to be poor in America.  

Here's what it's like:

You pick the kids up at school on Friday afternoon and you try to figure out if you absolutely have to drive anywhere on the weekend because if you can avoid it and stay home then you might be able to drive work and school for an extra day next week.  If you don't do that and take that extra drive to Grandma's house this weekend the following Thursday you are cursing yourself because you can't get to work/school wherever you need to go.

You need groceries and your food stamps have run out (yes the poor in America are on food stamps and so am I) but you don't have any milk so you rummage through your cabinets and see what you can return to the store that you don't need so that you can buy the baby her milk.  You do the same thing for gas money all the while thanking God that grocery stores sell gas now.  You do this once a month or more.  

You've been on the other side of more than one condescending conversation with a middle class lay leader or a pastor asking for help while they maybe help you and chastise you about using their help to buy cigarettes.  Seriously?!  (It makes you hate the church a little more every time that happens).  They want to help you budget.  You want to punch them in the throat as they tell you very sweetly how you could get out of your situation.  Do you think I'm willingly sitting here in your office subjecting myself to your condescension because I want to?  No none of us are.

You're afraid to eat or buy certain foods at the store because it might mean there's not enough for what your kids like or want to eat. 

Your kids think packing their lunch is a luxury because they qualify for free lunch at school and it costs you less money in groceries when they buy so you don't let them pack very often.  And when they do they're really excited about it and you bite back the tears so hard every time that happens.

You haven't been inside a mall or to a shopping center in a year or more.  

You know what it's like to have less than $20 to your name for months at a time without that ever changing.  

You know the name of every government program that could possibly help you.  You have applied and you know how long the bureaucracy will take before you get a response, which most likely will be no and you'll be screwed again.  

The thought of your kids need field trip money or going to a scouting event strikes fear into your heart because it will mean you don't have gas money for another week.  

You don't ever go out for girls night because buying dinner out is not something you can do.

You know what a pawn shop looks like and you're very aware there's nothing else left in your house that they will take.  You may have pawned your own jewelry to pay your daughter's daycare bill.  

Someone has given you winter coats for your kids because you couldn't buy them.  

Your landlord is on the verge of evicting you all the time.  

You own nothing except your car which you're constantly worried about insuring or paying for.  

Having a pet for your kids could mean not feeding them so you don't get a dog despite the fact that you desperately want one for them.  

When your kids or you need a hair cut this sends you into a panic because you still only have that $20 and their haircut alone costs $35.  

There are many more things I could tell you about what it looks like to be poor in our country but I think you get the picture.  I sincerely don't want your help.  I really just want you to understand what you do not know.  You do not know what it is like to be me.  You do not know what it like to be that man or woman in the ghetto.  You do not know what it is like to be the 70 year old Grandma living alone.  You do not know.  So please stop acting like you do.  Because you don't and you have the ability to be a helper instead of a critic and it's such a better thing to be.  

Even now in my situation, as unpleasant as it is I have been able to find ways of being a helper and every time I do I'm so glad I did.  The poor in our country and other first world countries don't want your pity; it's a burden for them to bear.  They want a better job and the ability to pay their bills.  They don't want to need to show up on your doorstep.  It's humiliating and dehumanizing and they hate it.  So please don't scoff at us, at me, at them.  We don't want to be here; trust us enough to begin to believe that we are doing everything we can to get out of this situation.  Maybe from that foundation we can all become helpers and put the critics out of a job.

After reading this I realize you have a glimpse into my personal financial struggles.  Please do not attempt to help me directly, if you want to help someone in need there are great ministries that do good not condescending work for the poor in our country. I'd be glad to direct you to them.


  1. I have a small taste of being that poor, but it was only temporary – and I had a way out. I imagine it can feel hopeless to many who don’t have a way out – that they can see. I agree that the typical middle class family has no idea what it’s like, and there are people trapped in “poverty” due to things like health, family care, five kids all with different daddies, lack of credit/money, to get an education or residence to help get a decent job, etc. However there are many who are poor due to their own choices in life, and they seem to sour people’s attitudes toward the “poor” in general. That does not excuse – people’s behavior to treat everyone in need of assistance like they are deadbeats.

    1. A writer that I respect once said "Jesus said to help the poor, he did not say to help the poor only if they weren't too lazy or addicted or selfish to help themselves."

      I felt like I perceived an attitude of judgement on the poor in your comments, I understand if that is the case and if so that it is probably well deserved in many cases. However, the point of this piece is just to point out that most people don't understand what it is to be poor in our country. I just wanted to expand the concept of poverty in our country. I don't fault you for your perspective. Hopefully this piece may help enrich your perspective.


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