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.