Nuances of Poverty
Not living in poverty ourselves, we don’t always recognize the sort of difficulties that can crop up when you have to rely on layers of other people to just get by, let alone to help yourself move into a more economically secure place in life. When we started volunteering in local efforts to eliminate poverty, we learned about the layers of support that people in poverty rely on—there’s a very strong reliance on family and friends, there’s a reliance on relationships with people in non-profit organizations like ours, and there’s a reliance on social service and government agencies. To someone not in poverty, that can seem like a lot of layers of resources, a pretty good set-up for meeting your basic needs and positioning you for the climb out of poverty.
It was only when we got involved with people in poverty one-on-one that we realized how much more complicated it is—how moving out of poverty isn’t as easy as just wanting the change and seeking out resources from your layers of support. Inevitably, everyday snags, like coming down with the flu or making a hasty decision—things that happen to us all regardless of income level—affect those in poverty with a gravity the rest of us may not realize until we engage with them and learn from their experiences.
Here’s a story that speaks directly to that point.
If we get sick, we make an appointment with the doctor. We take a sick day and drive to the doctor. We wait in the lobby a while. We’re called in and begin to tell the doctor all about what ails us. The doctor looks through our chart, reviews our past visits, maybe asks us some questions to find out if our current problem is related to anything we’ve experienced before. We ask our own questions until we feel confident that the doc understands us, that we understand the doc, and that we’re on the right track to better health.
As we learned from the women we work with through TEAMwork for Quality Living, however, this is not the chain of events for someone in poverty who relies on subsidized health care, such as Medicaid. One woman revealed that in her visits to the doctor, she is limited to a specific, small number of minutes she can spend with the doctor. And in that time, she can only discuss limited ailments. If she came in for x but also wanted to discuss y, she would have to make a new appointment and go through the hardship of visiting the doctor all over again. These hardships might include finding transportation, having to take more time—perhaps unpaid—off work, and having to find someone to watch her children for an unknown amount of time if she doesn’t want to expose them to the germs in a doctor’s office. The experience of trying to fully utilize social services provided to you ends up creating other hardships that hinder your overall effort to help your economic situation.
Another woman we work with made it through an ordeal that similarly illustrates poverty’s ability to complicate situations beyond what you might imagine. In fact, we experienced this story right alongside her, as it would turn out. This mother did not have an income, but was putting together monthly rent on an apartment, so she applied for Section 8 government housing assistance to ease the burden. Several Section 8-approved housing options were out there, but she didn’t like the feel of the neighborhoods for her son. A friend knew of an empty house that she could rent out in the country, and she jumped— hastily—at the opportunity.
See, she was used to relying on friends and family, and that seemed the most comfortable thing to do at the time, but the hasty decision to immediately rely on a friend’s recommendation resulted in a race with the clock to making her new living quarters compliant with Section 8 housing requirements. Because the house had not been lived in for some time, it turned out there was a seemingly never-ending list of improvements that needed to be made. So friends, family, and members of our TEAMwork organization and Circles community stepped up to help ready the house.
Several times in the process, she said, “I think I’ve made a mistake.” We all make mistakes. But the thing is, people in poverty often have fewer options for “fixing” possible mistakes. This was another of those situations where you clearly realize what a different experience something like this is for a person in poverty compared to someone not in poverty.
If something similar had happened to us—perhaps rushing into purchasing a home without full consideration of improvements it would need—we would have pretty quickly hired people to come in and fix things: to work on the floors, to cover the outlets, to patch wall holes, to grout tile, to do all the things we don’t know how to do or don’t have time to do. That’s the obvious, easy fix to our lapse in judgment, and we have the resources to take care of it quickly by simply flipping open our wallet.
Our friend’s situation drove home the reality that while the results of a hasty decision might amount to minor inconveniences for someone not in poverty, they can be real roadblocks for someone in poverty. She nearly didn’t receive her Section 8 approval. We put in hours and hours of work over days and weeks, and the house was approved just before her Section 8 voucher ran out. One hasty decision, which we’re all prone to make from time-to-time, was nearly a major setback in her efforts to move out of poverty—efforts which were at the root of her decision to seek new housing in the first place.
What we take away from these stories, and all like them, is that there are nuances to living in poverty that we as middle-class people miss unless they’re pointed out to us. And it’s important not to miss them, to be aware, because missing them is what leads to harmful stereotypes about people in poverty. Being involved and aware helps you see how difficult the process of trying to help yourself can be when poverty seems to be working against you at every turn.
Working with people in poverty is a learning experience for us as much as it is a helpful experience for them, and we’d encourage anyone with an interest in helping to do it. Jump in. Get involved. Everyone can become a part of the layers of support for a person in the journey out of poverty. Everyone can become a player in the larger picture in a meaningful way, even if you think it’s just a small way.
Just find something you’re comfortable with. It can be as easy as checking the newspaper for the section that lists volunteer opportunities—they’re not hard to find. And if you get involved and it doesn’t seem like the right fit, those organizations can all help you find another community outlet that’s right for you. They’re all working toward common goals, and all together, we’re making real progress.
— As told to Suzanne Clem Marketing Coordinator Ball State University Dining Service