December 19 2016
Money/Sanity

A Moment to Acknowledge Reality & the Poor

At this time of year, some people take a moment to reflect on the poor.  Others, of course, dedicate their lives to the the poor.  But many people who are not poor do not spend a lot of time thinking about the poor.

“The poor.”  Sounds like a Dickensian, outmoded idea.  Like “orphans.” People going about their business could almost be forgiven for thinking there are no more poor people when they are so removed from our national discourse. But, of course, they’d be wrong.  There are still orphans, too. We just call them by a different name.  Though like in olden days, they are usually poor.

Politicians in our country don’t really talk about the poor.

They talk about the “middle class.”  Because the poor don’t vote. And every day, new laws are put in place to help them not vote. They certainly do not offer campaign bribes.  Citizens United says that money equals free speech, so the more money you have, the freer and louder your speech.  If you have no money, then, well, you get it.  So the poor are essentially a quiet, quiet group in a loud, loud world.

There was one person who spoke unrelentingly for the poor: Jesus. Maybe that’s why we are tugged think of the poor at Christmastime. Jesus spoke for the poor above all else.  It was kind of like his number one message.  And the message was as radical then as it is today. The poor are at the very center of the entire message behind all of Christianity.  Which is utterly mind-blowing because…

The irony-rich religious political agenda.

I cringe at the hypocrisy of those in government who claim to be guided by Jesus, but are ferocious in their opposition to helping the poor.  Instead, their life’s work is to sow the cultural fractures of identity politics. I can’t understand why a person would squander their chance to make a difference by fretting over public restrooms instead of inequality, suffering and poverty. And the people who support this philosophy… you could sell them salt as they die of thirst, as long as you flavor it with outrage-inducing recriminations.  This sad transaction happens daily.  And the country gets thirstier and thirstier.

Why do so many Americans have this attitude about the poor?

I know my parents do. My grandparents were all quite poor children of immigrants. But they made their lives better without any of the safety nets we have today.  Perhaps this is the lens through which older generations see poverty.  They saw their parents’ heroic self-reliance and can’t understand why poor people today can’t be held to the same standard.  Especially given all the extra help they have from the government.

But the world has changed.

I have written before about how my about-to-turn-99 (!) year-old aunt always talks about how she didn’t know she was poor.  My grand-parents, aunts and uncles on both sides of my family have said this same crazy thing to me.  I can guarantee you, people at the turn of the millennium who are poor know they are poor.

Poverty in our society, is not really comparable to poverty in our grandparents’ era.

I’m not saying that they didn’t have it hard or that people didn’t suffer unspeakably years ago.  But things were different. Commonly shared cultural and religious values were a stronger force, providing many destitute families with certain bedrock values that made it possible to get through a poor childhood without being mentally broken.  And if their families were anything like my parents’ families, they may not have even known they were poor.

Here is what they did not have to contend with: widespread drug addiction, guns, gang violence, mass incarceration, crumbling schools, isolation from extended family and the utter breakdown of the family unit.

Growing up in poverty today often coincides with an indifferent upbringing, an indifferent education and the mental scars that go with violence, physical and emotional abuse, a lack of community, a lack of role models and so many other traumatic things that change a child’s brain forever. This is why there is such a thing as the “cycle” of poverty. Once you hop on, it’s not easy for your kid to hop off.

You cannot expect a child to grow up in this environment and succeed in life just because it is not a scientific impossibility to do so.  Most will not overcome the odds unless some powerful, effective outside forces come into play.

The fact is, the things middle class people do to ensure their kids’ success – all those things that as a society we like to make fun of — they matter.  A lot. Reading and talking to children from birth, Pre-K, trips to the zoo, soccer class, piano lessons, fostering friendships and social bonds, showering them with affection and security… even just being married.  All these things boost their hand.  My grandparents, while they did not have a lot of money, had all the intangibles.  A strong family structure, discipline, pride, community, social bonds and access to education.

There’s been some backlash over minimalists preaching about their simple lives.

And I get it.  There is a certain insufferability that can emerge from bragging about simplicity when you have the means to live however you wish.  Many have no choice but to raise kids on $25K a year.  And their lives do not look like Mr. Money Mustache’s, I promise.  I adore MMM, but he is not proof that anyone can live well on a tiny amount of money.  Unfortunately $25K a year does not a life free from poverty make.  No matter how many great tips you find on Pinterest.  $25K works if you own your own home, have money in the bank, a support network of friends and family, free childcare, and are a great, loving, educated mom and dad who were able to plan out this wonderfully efficient life while making a nice upper middle class salary.

We can’t look at the culture of frugality and mistake it for the idea that the poor do not need help.

They do.  As all the money in the world snowballs into the accounts of the wealthy few, inequality becomes a destructive self-propelling force.  The comically wealthy don’t even know what to do with all their money.  (Though I have a great idea.) Meanwhile, the poor struggle to find a supermarket selling a single vegetable that is remotely accessible to them. Or a decent school.  Or rent they can afford.  And forget about childcare, being home after giving birth, or even just for a day with a sick kid.

This is a challenge that the poor do not have the resources or wherewithal to solve alone.  The onus must be on society as a whole.  Charity is great, but at some point we have to admit that there are some things only the government can accomplish. And if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. And if it is not being done right, why can’t the argument be to fix it, to do better, instead of doing nothing?  It’s like the argument “Obamacare premiums are too high – cancel everyone’s health insurance!”  This view is frustrating.

Kids growing up in poverty are swimming against the tide.

Yes, of course some extraordinary people have overcome the odds, like this inspiring girl.  But most do not.  Our brains can easily be broken down by science.  Why do we do things.  How do our childhoods affect the outcome of our lives.  When you acknowledge neuro-science, you acknowledge that a life of poverty is pre-determined for so many people and that it is truly not their fault.

It behooves all of us to break the cycle.  There are tons of studies and data that offer ideas for dealing with the problems of poverty.  But it must begin with more people changing their attitudes about the poor and electing politicians that do not vilify them all as lazy takers who just need to be more self-sufficient.  It’s true, many broken adults will never be productive members of society.  It is too late for them.  But the children, we have to help the children avoid this fate if their parents cannot or will not.

This means considering, just considering having an open mind, even just maybe for one small moment, about some progressive social ideas.  A living minimum wage, universal healthcare, paid family leave, paid sick leave, universal Pre-K, affordable childcare, higher education solutions, criminal justice reform, addiction treatment, access to mental health services.  These things would help so many people.  Why should improving the lives of Americans be controversial or a partisan issue? I am asking honestly.

  • You say everything I feel so eloquently, Linda! My husband and I had a long discussion about this over the weekend. I believe people generally do the best they can with the situation they are in.

    It is not as simple as just pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and stepping out of poverty. I think one of the key factors that is missing today is social support – support from family, friends and community (and proximity is an issue here too). I’m with you – it should not be a controversial or partisan issue – it’s a human issue.

    • Thank you Amanda. I am pretty obviously a bleeding heart liberal, but I would never argue against the importance of family, or at least both parents being involved, even if they are not married just because that is a conservative-embraced idea. I totally acknowledge the importance of morality, of old fashioned values and the difference that makes in children’s lives. We limit ourselves when we stick to all our political talking points. The goal isn’t to win the argument, but agree that we all want people to have better lives. Hope you and your family have a peaceful and joyful holiday… xo

  • One of the biggest traps of poverty that makes getting out of it so much harder now is education quality. If you’re going to earn middle or upper class income, you’re going to need enough education to get the good jobs…it’s awfully hard to find good paying work if all you have is a high school education.

    That ain’t easy for poor kids in our country.. They don’t necessarily get the good foundation of quality pre-K. Almost 1 in 4 goes hungry, which makes concentration in school difficult. They’re more likely to go to school sick, or miss days due to illnesses that could have been easily treated with a few more resources. Because so much of school spending is based on property taxes, poor communities have much lower resources. All that makes success that much harder even in K-12.

    I know a lot of our community has strong feelings about bootstrapping and personal responsibility, and that makes me uncomfortable because I know how many opportunities I’ve been given to have whatever successes I’ve had. My margins for error were much, much greater than they are for many, and I think we do a disservice to ignore that factor at play.

    • I just really strongly agree with you, obviously. It is a theme that always makes me recoil a bit. I am impressed by the amazing things people have done to stretch a regular salary into financial freedom or early retirement. But it is just not comparable to the set of circumstances people living in poverty are dealing with, only some of which are directly a function of day to day money trouble. Most are more a function of extreme emotional trauma. It is easy to imagine the possibilities when you have certain very basic blessings. Not quite as easy if you never had something as basic as a mom and dad to tell you, and show you, that they loved you.

  • Thank you for a beautifully written post about something that should be on our minds all year long. Yes, I believe we should encourage personal responsibility, but not to the point of ignoring the realities of poverty and what is needed to overcome all its related issues. As you said, charity is great, but we need something greater in order to effect real change. Unfortunately, I fear the incoming administration is only going to make the situation worse for our poorest citizens.

    • Thank you, Gary. I have the same fears. And I am not one of the people who say “they get what they deserve.” I think it is hard for middle class people to imagine not being able to vote because you can’t afford to miss work or you can’t get to a polling site because you don’t have a car and you can use your money for your electric bill or cab fare, but not both. It is just not fair. And it is unacceptable in such a rich country.

  • This is a truly touching post, Linda. I think you hit on something when you mentioned an indifferent upbringing. I think to have a fighting chance of getting out of poverty, a child needs a motivated parent, mentor, educator, family member or family friend – and someone to model “un-poverty” behavior. This is a tough one. I don’t have any answers but clearly the things we’re doing as a society are not working.

    • Thank you Mrs. Groovy. I don’t know how to make parents raise their children right when they are severely broken. Social workers and others who are making a difference in the trenches are truly sent from God. But other things are more simple and straightforward. Paid family leave, for instance. We are the only civilized nation on earth that does not provide this to families. The fact that so many women have to go back to work the moment they give birth because they can’t pay their rent if they don’t work – that is truly a crime. Universal Pre-K is another thing that would help so many children who are not getting spoken to or read to at home, sowing the seeds for a much better shot at life. These things would genuinely help the poor the most. But we have a wall of opposition to these things that seems just about impenetrable. I don’t understand why.

  • I agree that being poor is very hard. I grew up very poor and I realized that there were easy choices I could make not to be poor. I could opt not to have unprotected sex and not be a teen parent. I could choose to do drugs with my friends or not. I realized that when you got a tax refund, you could either go shopping for something frivolous or save it or actually just go buy extra food for next month. There were plenty of choices that myself and my friends made that affected whether we continued far below the poverty line or not.

    I agree that universal pre-K and paid maternity are a good thing. However, I think that the real issue is the economy. People want to work and feel proud to do so. They don’t want hand out after hand out. They want jobs that pay decent for honest labor. I don’t think that improving the lives of those living in poverty is a partisan issue but how to do so is not agreed upon by both sides.

    • I agree with you. And I have immense respect for you having dealt with true challenges and faced them by making good choices. What I was saying was that not all poor people have the kind of upbringing that leads them to this kind of decision making. I don’t think we should leave those people for dead. Some people see things like Universal Pre-K, which have been shown in many studies to be helpful, has a “hand out”. And they see all “hand outs” as negative. This I do not agree with. The government does not have the power to create a job for every single person. That is what the private sector does. But it does have the capacity to create a social safety net for everyone. I believe it should do so for the good of all Americans.

  • I love this post so much. We need to have more discussions like this, more recognition of privilege, more honest assessments of the root causes of poverty and the structural factors that keep people in it. The thinking is far too pervasive in this country that people are poor because they’re not willing to work hard, which obviously couldn’t be farther from the truth. (And the whole idea begs a strong, “Really?!” You really think people WANT to stay poor? Especially when — as you pointed out — no one living in poverty today has failed to notice the fact of their circumstances?! It’s mind boggling how pervasive this thinking is.) Thank you so much for writing this!

    • Thank you so much for reading and commenting and sharing. I wish helping the poor wasn’t so politically stigmatized. How can food stamps be controversial – literally feeding people. Or educating children to give them a fighting chance to contribute to society. Or allowing people to stay home with a sick kid, not just people with “good” jobs. How can anyone be against these things? The conversation has really been so perverted by politics. It saddens me.

  • I love this post Linda. I have to believe society is capable of promoting tenets of personal responsibility, while also protecting it’s most vulnerable citizens. The concepts should not have to be mutually exclusive. The problems are complex, but I feel like the current polarization of our political system(s) make progress near impossible. Even the social programs that exist or are introduced have been hijacked for political purposes.
    On a positive note, conversations like the one you’ve inspired are a way forward.

    • Thank you MMM. My sincere goal for 2017 is to try to engage people on topics like this without injecting that sarcastic, combative tone that just aborts all possibility for meaningful discourse. We are all just shouting at each other, convinced we are right, but no one listens when you make your case while being insulting. I’m not interested in being right – I just want to see things improve. Or at the very least, not worsen. On another topic, I want to thank you for the support you have shown my blog. It means a lot to me. I hope you and your family have a peaceful holiday… xo

  • This is such a hard conversation to have at this moment in this country. Although it seems like certain parts of the country are feeling all-time prosperity, other parts are struggling just to survive. You’re right that charity and volunteerism is great, but my $50 to the food bank only goes so far, and my limited time to volunteer can only accomplish so much. My dad is about as “boot-strappy” as it gets, and he is always reminding me that I “earned” my success. In reality, he had gov’t assistance as a child, FHA loans as a young adult, GREAT public schools for his kids, and generous scholarships that meant he didn’t have to pay for a dime of my college – yeah, sure, we are smart and worked hard but we also got really lucky in the grand scheme of things.

    • This is how I feel 100%. I think that many of our parents don’t think of all the help they have had from the government as… help from the government. I think there is also this perverse idea that if the poor don’t look like some out-dated romantic version of noble Tiny Tim, they are undeserving. But it is almost impossible to play the part of the “virtuous poor” against the backdrop of modern society. When a person is emotionally broken, has no dignity, has a drug-abusing mother that could not “mother,” with a physically abusive boyfriend – this person is not going to look like the dapper old gentleman on the bread line during the Great Depression. But that doesn’t mean society shouldn’t do anything to help right the wrong of a tragic cycle that ensnares anyone unlucky enough to be trapped in its grip.

  • I agree it’s possible to pull yourself out of being poor and into the middle-and even upper-class, but it’s very difficult and most will never be able to do it. When you live your day-to-day life in a certain way, and everyone else is living that way too, that’s “normal” to you. Doing things differently can cause problems with your family and friends. Being able to live on a lower income because for years you made a higher income, and you had a stable childhood/adulthood, isn’t the same as always having had a lower income and no stability in their lives. We all love a good “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” or “rags to riches” story, but the reality is that for every success there are many, many others stuck in the cycle of poverty with no way that they can see to get out.

    1. Dara 08:43pm 30 December - 2016 - Reply

      Excellent read. The system is so very broken, and it feels like our government leaders only break it further.

    2. Liz@ChiefMomOfficer 06:05am 29 December - 2016 - Reply

      I agree it’s possible to pull yourself out of being poor and into the middle-and even upper-class, but it’s very difficult and most will never be able to do it. When you live your day-to-day life in a certain way, and everyone else is living that way too, that’s “normal” to you. Doing things differently can cause problems with your family and friends. Being able to live on a lower income because for years you made a higher income, and you had a stable childhood/adulthood, isn’t the same as always having had a lower income and no stability in their lives. We all love a good “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” or “rags to riches” story, but the reality is that for every success there are many, many others stuck in the cycle of poverty with no way that they can see to get out.

      • Brooklyn Bread 08:30am 29 December - 2016 - Reply

        Thank you for commenting, Liz – this is exactly how I feel… -Linda

    3. Green Revelation 11:19am 27 December - 2016 - Reply

      This is such a hard conversation to have at this moment in this country. Although it seems like certain parts of the country are feeling all-time prosperity, other parts are struggling just to survive. You’re right that charity and volunteerism is great, but my $50 to the food bank only goes so far, and my limited time to volunteer can only accomplish so much. My dad is about as “boot-strappy” as it gets, and he is always reminding me that I “earned” my success. In reality, he had gov’t assistance as a child, FHA loans as a young adult, GREAT public schools for his kids, and generous scholarships that meant he didn’t have to pay for a dime of my college – yeah, sure, we are smart and worked hard but we also got really lucky in the grand scheme of things.

      • Brooklyn Bread 04:17pm 27 December - 2016 - Reply

        This is how I feel 100%. I think that many of our parents don’t think of all the help they have had from the government as… help from the government. I think there is also this perverse idea that if the poor don’t look like some out-dated romantic version of noble Tiny Tim, they are undeserving. But it is almost impossible to play the part of the “virtuous poor” against the backdrop of modern society. When a person is emotionally broken, has no dignity, has a drug-abusing mother that could not “mother,” with a physically abusive boyfriend – this person is not going to look like the dapper old gentleman on the bread line during the Great Depression. But that doesn’t mean society shouldn’t do anything to help right the wrong of a tragic cycle that ensnares anyone unlucky enough to be trapped in its grip.

    4. Mystery Money Man 02:04am 22 December - 2016 - Reply

      I love this post Linda. I have to believe society is capable of promoting tenets of personal responsibility, while also protecting it’s most vulnerable citizens. The concepts should not have to be mutually exclusive. The problems are complex, but I feel like the current polarization of our political system(s) make progress near impossible. Even the social programs that exist or are introduced have been hijacked for political purposes.
      On a positive note, conversations like the one you’ve inspired are a way forward.

      • Brooklyn Bread 07:25am 22 December - 2016 - Reply

        Thank you MMM. My sincere goal for 2017 is to try to engage people on topics like this without injecting that sarcastic, combative tone that just aborts all possibility for meaningful discourse. We are all just shouting at each other, convinced we are right, but no one listens when you make your case while being insulting. I’m not interested in being right – I just want to see things improve. Or at the very least, not worsen. On another topic, I want to thank you for the support you have shown my blog. It means a lot to me. I hope you and your family have a peaceful holiday… xo

    5. Our Next Life 11:00pm 21 December - 2016 - Reply

      I love this post so much. We need to have more discussions like this, more recognition of privilege, more honest assessments of the root causes of poverty and the structural factors that keep people in it. The thinking is far too pervasive in this country that people are poor because they’re not willing to work hard, which obviously couldn’t be farther from the truth. (And the whole idea begs a strong, “Really?!” You really think people WANT to stay poor? Especially when — as you pointed out — no one living in poverty today has failed to notice the fact of their circumstances?! It’s mind boggling how pervasive this thinking is.) Thank you so much for writing this!

      • Brooklyn Bread 07:30am 22 December - 2016 - Reply

        Thank you so much for reading and commenting and sharing. I wish helping the poor wasn’t so politically stigmatized. How can food stamps be controversial – literally feeding people. Or educating children to give them a fighting chance to contribute to society. Or allowing people to stay home with a sick kid, not just people with “good” jobs. How can anyone be against these things? The conversation has really been so perverted by politics. It saddens me.

    6. NdChic 11:13pm 20 December - 2016 - Reply

      I agree that being poor is very hard. I grew up very poor and I realized that there were easy choices I could make not to be poor. I could opt not to have unprotected sex and not be a teen parent. I could choose to do drugs with my friends or not. I realized that when you got a tax refund, you could either go shopping for something frivolous or save it or actually just go buy extra food for next month. There were plenty of choices that myself and my friends made that affected whether we continued far below the poverty line or not.

      I agree that universal pre-K and paid maternity are a good thing. However, I think that the real issue is the economy. People want to work and feel proud to do so. They don’t want hand out after hand out. They want jobs that pay decent for honest labor. I don’t think that improving the lives of those living in poverty is a partisan issue but how to do so is not agreed upon by both sides.

      • Brooklyn Bread 07:44am 21 December - 2016 - Reply

        I agree with you. And I have immense respect for you having dealt with true challenges and faced them by making good choices. What I was saying was that not all poor people have the kind of upbringing that leads them to this kind of decision making. I don’t think we should leave those people for dead. Some people see things like Universal Pre-K, which have been shown in many studies to be helpful, has a “hand out”. And they see all “hand outs” as negative. This I do not agree with. The government does not have the power to create a job for every single person. That is what the private sector does. But it does have the capacity to create a social safety net for everyone. I believe it should do so for the good of all Americans.

    7. Mrs. Groovy 05:43pm 20 December - 2016 - Reply

      This is a truly touching post, Linda. I think you hit on something when you mentioned an indifferent upbringing. I think to have a fighting chance of getting out of poverty, a child needs a motivated parent, mentor, educator, family member or family friend – and someone to model “un-poverty” behavior. This is a tough one. I don’t have any answers but clearly the things we’re doing as a society are not working.

      • Brooklyn Bread 07:45pm 20 December - 2016 - Reply

        Thank you Mrs. Groovy. I don’t know how to make parents raise their children right when they are severely broken. Social workers and others who are making a difference in the trenches are truly sent from God. But other things are more simple and straightforward. Paid family leave, for instance. We are the only civilized nation on earth that does not provide this to families. The fact that so many women have to go back to work the moment they give birth because they can’t pay their rent if they don’t work – that is truly a crime. Universal Pre-K is another thing that would help so many children who are not getting spoken to or read to at home, sowing the seeds for a much better shot at life. These things would genuinely help the poor the most. But we have a wall of opposition to these things that seems just about impenetrable. I don’t understand why.

    8. Gary @ Super Saving Tips 06:31pm 19 December - 2016 - Reply

      Thank you for a beautifully written post about something that should be on our minds all year long. Yes, I believe we should encourage personal responsibility, but not to the point of ignoring the realities of poverty and what is needed to overcome all its related issues. As you said, charity is great, but we need something greater in order to effect real change. Unfortunately, I fear the incoming administration is only going to make the situation worse for our poorest citizens.

      • Brooklyn Bread 08:03pm 19 December - 2016 - Reply

        Thank you, Gary. I have the same fears. And I am not one of the people who say “they get what they deserve.” I think it is hard for middle class people to imagine not being able to vote because you can’t afford to miss work or you can’t get to a polling site because you don’t have a car and you can use your money for your electric bill or cab fare, but not both. It is just not fair. And it is unacceptable in such a rich country.

    9. Emily @ JohnJaneDoe 04:38pm 19 December - 2016 - Reply

      One of the biggest traps of poverty that makes getting out of it so much harder now is education quality. If you’re going to earn middle or upper class income, you’re going to need enough education to get the good jobs…it’s awfully hard to find good paying work if all you have is a high school education.

      That ain’t easy for poor kids in our country.. They don’t necessarily get the good foundation of quality pre-K. Almost 1 in 4 goes hungry, which makes concentration in school difficult. They’re more likely to go to school sick, or miss days due to illnesses that could have been easily treated with a few more resources. Because so much of school spending is based on property taxes, poor communities have much lower resources. All that makes success that much harder even in K-12.

      I know a lot of our community has strong feelings about bootstrapping and personal responsibility, and that makes me uncomfortable because I know how many opportunities I’ve been given to have whatever successes I’ve had. My margins for error were much, much greater than they are for many, and I think we do a disservice to ignore that factor at play.

      • Brooklyn Bread 04:52pm 19 December - 2016 - Reply

        I just really strongly agree with you, obviously. It is a theme that always makes me recoil a bit. I am impressed by the amazing things people have done to stretch a regular salary into financial freedom or early retirement. But it is just not comparable to the set of circumstances people living in poverty are dealing with, only some of which are directly a function of day to day money trouble. Most are more a function of extreme emotional trauma. It is easy to imagine the possibilities when you have certain very basic blessings. Not quite as easy if you never had something as basic as a mom and dad to tell you, and show you, that they loved you.

    10. Amanda @ centsiblyrich 11:24am 19 December - 2016 - Reply

      You say everything I feel so eloquently, Linda! My husband and I had a long discussion about this over the weekend. I believe people generally do the best they can with the situation they are in.

      It is not as simple as just pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and stepping out of poverty. I think one of the key factors that is missing today is social support – support from family, friends and community (and proximity is an issue here too). I’m with you – it should not be a controversial or partisan issue – it’s a human issue.

      • Brooklyn Bread 12:21pm 19 December - 2016 - Reply

        Thank you Amanda. I am pretty obviously a bleeding heart liberal, but I would never argue against the importance of family, or at least both parents being involved, even if they are not married just because that is a conservative-embraced idea. I totally acknowledge the importance of morality, of old fashioned values and the difference that makes in children’s lives. We limit ourselves when we stick to all our political talking points. The goal isn’t to win the argument, but agree that we all want people to have better lives. Hope you and your family have a peaceful and joyful holiday… xo

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