Home > Family, Food, Health, Parenting, Reflections > 46.5 million critical reasons to see poverty’s devastation

46.5 million critical reasons to see poverty’s devastation

The bathwater was on the verge of spilling over the edge of the tub, so I leaned over and turned it off.

My son immediately threw a fit. He was only two at the time, so his fit didn’t involve his now-customary attempts to negotiate. He mostly shouted “more” a lot and flailed around to show he disapproved of my decision.

“Sweetie,” I told him, surprised by his unusually strong reaction. “There are people in this world–”

What I wanted to say was, “There are people in this world who can’t give their kids a single glass of water to drink. This problem is not so big.”

What I actually did was choke on my words and begin to cry. As my son stopped flailing and focused on his toys again, I imagined what it would be like to gaze upon his cracked lips and be unable to give him a single ounce of clean water. I thought about the reality that countless mothers around the world face this very situation daily.

The imagining felt real, and terrible, but I understood its limitations. Unlike a mother without access to clean water, I could easily wander into and out of imagining, knowing that drinkable water was just an arm’s reach away. What I could imagine was enough to break my heart, but not enough that I would dare walk up to a suffering mother and say, “I know what it’s like, because I imagined it.”

Over the weekend, I compared my discomfort with a temporarily smaller than usual budget to the discomfort my mom most have felt as a perpetually impoverished mother of four. My discomfort ashamed me. My situation has changed, but manageably. It’s temporary, not enduring. It’s a diminishing of luxuries, not an ever present fear that my family will be without food or shelter.

It was with this shame heavy in my heart that I read a powerful article on living in poverty, as 46.5 million U.S. citizens currently do: Jenn’s Words: “Living in poverty is like being punched in the face over and over and over on a daily basis”.

Jenn’s article illuminates the actual experience of poverty in a way a reporter or legislator’s analysis never could. Its power is enhanced by blogger Jupiter’s statement in a follow up post:

We do not need rich men taking food stamp challenges to explain how hard it is to be poor. We need to listen to the words of actual poor people and respect that those experiences are real. The true experiences are always more powerful than those that were created in a fabricated bubble without unstable variables.

The lawmaker who takes a one-month food stamp challenge does so knowing he could grab a steak with a buddy, and that he’ll be able to do so once his week- or month-long experiment is up. He chooses to forego a spendy meal, making the choice willingly and with the luxury of knowing its time is limited. While his intentions are good, his experimental experience is just a sliver of the long-term actual experience.

He can choose to end it at any moment. The impoverished parent actually living on food stamps does so with no assurance she will ever live on anything but, no matter how many jobs she applies to, nor how many she works as she struggles to find her way to an increasingly unimaginable gentler life.

As I can imagine the agony of being unable to give my child water, he can imagine the difficulty of feeding a family of four on an excruciatingly small budget. In the end, he and I are both tourists in the land of scarcity, dabblers instead of dwellers.

Yes, I experienced poverty as a child, but as a child, I didn’t bear the burden of responsibility. I always trusted my mom would find a way to get food on the table. She usually did. I saw signs of her struggles with pride and her desire to be self-sustaining as she relented to the need for assistance, but I will never know how she felt as she tried to stretch out the contents of a food box and her sense of dignity.

If I am so lucky, I will only ever have to imagine that agony.

Like Jenn above, well (and not so well) meaning bystanders tried to solve my mom’s problems. Their solutions came from their “fabricated bubble[s] without unstable variables.”

Continuing her education meant more debt. It meant having to drive a succession of unreliable fourteenth-hand cars to a community college up in the hills, if she could scrape together the change for gas, all the while worrying about child care–not cheap even then–and the loss of paying opportunities.

Working meant finding a child care provider that would accept her meager pennies and not take it out on the kids–no easy feat, as experience showed time and again. It meant landing on a minimum wage employer who would not only hire her but overlook her need to respond to familial emergencies. When my cat died, one of our lesser emergencies, she had to plead with her employer for enough unpaid time off to ride her rusty bicycle back home and bury him. She told me later she cried as she pedaled back to work, cursing her inability to stay and comfort me.

Her life was a constant juggling of variables; bystanders, seeing only one or two, would offer up suggestions and be irritated she could not quickly implement their sensible suggestions.

Their intentions were often good, but their advice was limited by the constraints of their comparatively untested imaginations.

In their frustration, they’d tell my mom she’d brought this hardship on herself, first by marrying my dad and then by leaving him. As they judged her, they failed to see their words changed nothing. Did they expect their castigation to inspire her? Did they believe their judgment would change the objective facts of her life? Did they understand that the solution implicit in their judgments was unworkable save in science fiction?

Go back in time and make different choices.

An unworkable solution–one incapable of being fulfilled–is no solution at all.

Imagination is no substitute for experience, but imagining brings the imaginer one step closer. It’s for this reason I share Jenn’s post, Jupiter’s blog, and this sliver of what I remember of my mom’s experience. All three women, intelligent, persistent and articulate, innovate daily because it’s necessary to sustain themselves and their children. They are not “those people,” but people looking for ways to create lasting foundations of stability in the midst of complicated lives marked by sometimes insurmountable instability.

From a vantage point of comparative stability, it can be terrifying to confront the fact that the same inputs–hard work, considered assessment, planning and sacrifice–can lead to different results for different people. It’s liberating, too, because seeing what really is is essential to changing it.

Change won’t come from judgments or condemnation, or from suggesting science fiction solutions to cure today’s ills, but from working together to overcome the real struggles of poverty faced by millions of real people today.

To be inspired to work together, we have to learn to see both who and what actually is. And that? That can only be accomplished by accepting the limitations of what we can see right now through the lens of our own individual experiences. By imagining.

Imagining won’t bring water to parched lips, or food to rumbling bellies, but it can start the heart down a path feet and hands are compelled to follow.

Great change starts with small steps.

  1. February 24, 2014 at 11:36 am

    You’re insight and willingness to understand how others feel is beautiful. I too have dished out cookie cutter solutions to others problems…until they became my problems. It was only then that I understood that choice is shaped by our resources, both inner and outer.

    • February 25, 2014 at 8:26 pm

      I used to dish out those solutions, too. Every so often, something I see around me or on the screen will remind me of such an occurrence and make me cringe. But then, I’m learning as I go, and am much, much less prone to do such things now. I won’t say it never happens, but it happens much less, and I’ll continue striving towards never as long as I’m breathing.

      It was only then that I understood that choice is shaped by our resources, both inner and outer.
      So well put.

  2. February 24, 2014 at 1:19 pm

    Thanks for writing this, it’s very comforting. It also reinforced my desire to write a real story about what’s it’s like to live in poverty in a wealthy country, to struggle for stability and sustainability while the system helps and works against you at the same time.

    • February 25, 2014 at 8:27 pm

      I really, really hope you will write such a story. As I typed this out, I wished greatly I could interview my mom and share her story in her words, but this . . . this is what I can do, as I hope for others to tell the stories of their full experiences.

  3. February 24, 2014 at 4:03 pm

    Deborah, in some of my light reading on brain activities, I once read that the energy expended in playing a piano and the energy expended in visualising playing a piano; are equal. Why can’t you feel what others feel? Your feeling of love is yours, your feeling of anger is yours and your feeling of sadness is yours. It’s all relative, yet you are right to understand that actually living with the reality of no water and the threat of physical harm, differs from empathising with it. Interestingly, my mother sounds remarkably like your own. She is inspirational in that the conditions that applied to her life whilst she raised us, were harsh. The fact that you were brought to tears suggests that you do understand. It’s not necessary to live in a situation in order to understand a situation. That’s impossible in itself, because living one life is all we are budgeted for. Bath time and drives are the best.B

    • February 25, 2014 at 8:36 pm

      Ii’ve been mulling this over since I read it. I do think we can feel portions of what others feel, but I don’t think we’ll ever have the full experience. In a case like this, unlike the short-term expenditure of playing/imagining playing a piano, where we’re looking at sustained inaccessibility of resources, it’s possible to imagine moments but not the full, brutal scope of the experience. My every single imagining is limited to these moments of insight, an insight sheltered by the implicit knowledge I need only walk thirty yards and turn on a tap to access water. I read that there’s a term for the impact of this sustained lack of access to nutrients and water; the longer it goes, the more nervous energy and thought go into worrying about whether or when there might be future access. That drain of individual resources leads to inability to focus on other things and to other health issues. I can tell myself I can imagine all of what that’s like, and I know I can imagine parts–certainly enough to empathize–but that my very life experience shields me from the full, brutal, sustained blow of lack of access. I don’t fault myself or anyone this, because there’s plenty enough to experience within our own lives (amen to this: “That’s impossible in itself, because living one life is all we are budgeted for”), but I don’t want to presume an understanding greater than I do . . . or try to speak on behalf of those who really can articulate in living color the full range of the experience, you know? The more others try to say they can speak for an underrepresented group, the greater the overall din and the less weight is accorded to those who understand and can explain the excruciating detail that gets lost in overarching imaginings.

      Have you written about your mom on your blog? If so, I’d love to read it. I’d also love to go back in time and thank my mom profusely for everything, but I know this is for me to do not with words to the past so much as actions in the now.

      I thank you for your thought-provoking comments and care. Your words are a gift.

      • February 26, 2014 at 2:54 am

        Deborah thank you for this comment, I must say it really moved me that you reflected on it. Mum continues to play a large roll in my life as an inspiration and I will consider doing a blog on her but it will take time. For now, thank you and keep writing.B

    • asm
      March 3, 2015 at 7:40 pm

      Most of my life I thought a person could empathize with other people’s issues and that compassion was enough. But since then the world has shown me that reality can be very different. Compassion and empathy are still vital and appreciated. But I realize now I made a lot of incorrect assumptions or judgments about poverty (among other things). I didn’t realize how difficult the variables that get people there and that keep them there can be. There are a lot more decisions to be made on a daily basis rather than a monthly or yearly or other time period than you can imagine. The stress is extreme, especially when children are involved. Because, you don’t have money to just throw at even one situation and make it go away. Much less many and constant ones. Even now I am grateful I haven’t experienced what others in poverty have experienced. I have still been lucky in some ways and cannot truly imagine what others think, feel, experience who have to make harder choices than I have. Basically, even though I can imagine the equivalent of playing a piano, I can assure you the piano player has a much more intimate experience than I ever could with the actual piano, music, resonance, ongoing practice and pressure (if an important concert) of actually playing. No matter how rich my imagination, the nuances are not the same.

      Deborah, Thank you for such thoughtful insights.

  4. February 25, 2014 at 5:11 am

    Empathy isn’t wasted, ever. Compassion isn’t an emotion all feel, it is what is missing from the hearts of so many. That you can feel so much, is a blessing. It is what we need more of in our world. Yes, you are right the offering up of ‘solutions’ isn’t what we need, the offering of ’empty’ answers isn’t what we need either. But if those who can feel empathy and compassion, who can feel the problems with their hearts could also begin to reach outside of themselves into our communities, perhaps then we can begin to heal the very real problems of poverty that has so terribly crippled us.

    I love you, love that you feel so deeply and with such heart.

    • February 25, 2014 at 8:39 pm

      That you can feel so much, is a blessing
      I remember how I used to try cutting myself off from feelings. I thought it was strong to experience and show only anger and related emotions. I’m not sure what changed, what made me all of a sudden start crying at everything at some point during college, but I’m glad it changed. I am glad to be here to feel all of it, every little bit. I’m glad to feel all of it, and no longer try hiding certain things as unacceptable. So much of the world was closed off to me then that isn’t now. I remember thinking my old way was strong, but really, I was hiding. Now . . . now I am glad to feel, and glad for the reminders that my old ideas of “strong” were wrong, wrong, wrong. I love you. ♥

  5. February 25, 2014 at 11:35 pm

    As a woman living in the heart of poverty, your article struck home to me, seeing it in black and white. Your insight is right on, your support is obvious and you are very practical and a very nice person. I used to run a food bank a few years ago until I could no longer work, with many persons with good intentions who said we have to find ways to get rid of this system. We need to start grocery groups, community kitchens etc. I don’t know from month to month what I can pay for food so joining these groups are very limited for me. All I could tell them was “Poor people eat a lot of pasta”. We do. It’s cheap and filling but not really that good for you. As a mom, I work my butt off to try to come up with food on the table that is remotely healthy for my child. Food groups are expensive and out of our reach. I’m anxious and cry until the end of the month comes when my cheque comes in again…$900 to pay for rent, food, bus fare, school functions and utilities which adds up to far more that what I get.
    Thank you Deb for writing this today. It’s good to know other people get it. Peace.

    • February 26, 2014 at 7:48 pm

      I’ve seen a few arguments by people who think that monthly allotments here in the U.S. are too high. “You can get plenty of food for that amount!” Yes, plenty of food substitute can be obtained for small sums, but that’s what it is: food substitute, or food items that only cover a small portion of nutritional needs. People who are undernourished are unable to perform to peak capacity, a loss not just individual but societal. So heartbreaking, especially when considered in full scope. If it were outliers–an individual family here and there–versus millions of people across this continent, that would be one thing. But this kind of poverty, so widespread, is much more systemic and devastating than that. Sending love.

      • February 26, 2014 at 7:51 pm

        I posted this article on my facebook timeline and got a great response for you:

        Thank you Marie, this is a interesting article. I was glad to read that she realized she was only a tourist. That these politicians are just tourist. They are using these stunts to gain votes. To be seen to sympathetic. It sickens me. Mostly because I know when the bill comes to the floor it shall never be close to what people need, in so many ways, and shall more than often now be a step backwards. I do not have children and do not know the pain of a parents heart breaking when they can not the basic things for them. The words that did strike home for me was her speaking of her mother’s pride, and dignity. The uncertainy of each day, and the stress that comes with that. The state of mind that scares so deep. The anger that bring tears, knowing that I do not have the power to change the situation. Caught in a system that perpetuates it’s self and is self serving with a wagging finger. I do not want to end this on a negative note. So in closing I shall say, it is my hope, my dream, That I and, so many like me, shall find stability, not have to see their dignity demolished. They shall rise with love!

  1. March 2, 2014 at 7:24 am
  2. March 13, 2015 at 9:19 pm
  3. May 25, 2015 at 5:02 pm
  4. July 28, 2015 at 7:45 pm
  5. March 29, 2016 at 4:44 am
  6. July 16, 2016 at 6:30 pm
  7. March 24, 2017 at 5:51 am

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