A Poor Perspective on Poverty
When I was in elementary school, my mom made most of my clothes. As a child, I loved picking out the patterns and fabric to help design something uniquely for me. And when I outgrew those clothes, we donated them to what my parents called “the needy.”
I had a vague understanding of who “the needy” were. They were the kids who came to school dirty and sometimes smelly. They were the kids whose parents didn’t socialize with our parents. They were the kids that lived in neighborhoods where we were told not to go.
I thought that giving my clothes to “the needy” was some kind of measure of moral superiority.
Then one day, a girl in my class came to school wearing one of the outfits my mother had made.
I was shocked.
She was needy? I talked to her. I played with her at recess. I even sat with her at lunch sometimes.
I was even more shocked when someone asked her about her new clothes, and she described a shopping trip she’d made to Portland with her mother. At that age, I was just as unfamiliar with lying as I was with “the needy.”
I made the mistake of calling her out on her lie, but she didn’t relent and insisted she had bought the outfit at a store in Portland.
After that, I didn’t talk to her, play with her at recess or sit with her at lunch. I started equating “being needy” with being a liar.
Decades later, I still feel guilty about calling the girl out. I wish I could go back in time and go along with her fantasy about clothes shopping at fancy stores. She simply wanted to fit in, and I understand that now.
We live in a society that equates products with social status and success. Just carrying an off-brand purse gets me looks from women who pride themselves on carrying name brands.
And the extent to which our children are buying into that materialistic culture even surprises me. I’m usually not at a loss for words, but there is an exception to everything.
My exception came in the form of a ten-year old boy who lives in a house much larger than mine. His parents drive newer and more expensive cars than my husband and I do. His family seems to be on vacation every time school is out while my family rules the staycation. In other words, I think of his family as being “well-off.”
The boy, however, told me his family is poor.
I didn’t know what to say. Even with money out of the picture, I can’t begin to describe his family as poor.
His parents are attentive and loving to each other and their children, who are involved in numerous extracurricular activities. The family worships together and is actively engaged in community service. Simply put, the family lacks for nothing.
The boy, however, was adamant that his family is of limited means. He was sure because he has friends who not only live in a bigger houses but also have beach houses. Their cars are even more expensive, and their vacations even more extravagant. In his eyes, his family really doesn’t have enough.
I understand how this boy reached his conclusion. It’s called perspective. But that’s not an excuse for him or for all the adults who look into that same short lens that distorts everything.
Recently, a local official asked me why the percentage of children living in poverty had grown while the median household income in his county grew by more than $18,000 during the same ten-year period. Before I could answer, his colleague responded.
“There are more poor people, because the poverty level goes up every year. A family can make more money and still be considered poor.”
I was proud of my reaction. I was appropriate, and I didn’t even make a face. Instead, I noted that the local numbers simply reflect national data that show a growing income gap between the rich and the poor. Then I asked, “have you actually looked at the poverty level?”
When I didn’t get a response, I added, “This year, the poverty level for a family of four is $23,500. Personally, I don’t know how I could live within that.”
The topic quickly changed, and I’m not sure if the discussion had really ended or if a genuine conversation about poverty was just too uncomfortable, as it often is. Instead, we misdirect by categorizing the poor as deserving or undeserving. We dress up and attend charity events that make us feel good about helping. And we pride ourselves in giving to “the needy.”
But there are times when I try to change my perspective and look at how we treat the poor from the eyes of my former classmate. I’m pretty sure she’d tell us to stop pretending that poverty is something that happens to other people. I also think she’d say that we should stop pretending that name brand clothes or a big house reflect on our character or our importance. And I’m positive she’d say that we shouldn’t pretend that charitable giving is more meaningful than really listening to someone who is struggling.
And in return for her opinion, I’d tell her that I think she’s right.