welfare and reform
There’s no good way to say a lot of things about poverty. You don’t want to make generalizations about groups of people. Even if it’s mostly accurate, a generalization can too easily germinate into a stereotype, an ugly presupposition.
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? We nonprofit people love to talk about systemic change and removing barriers and how to fix government programs and schools blahdeeblah; but in the end, everyone’s story is their own story.
I’ve been invited/instructed to go to something called a “poverty simulation” in a few weeks. From what I know of it, the idea is that one starts off the evening/”month” with a certain family size and amount of money, and then goes to different stations (the pretend department of social services, the pretend grocery store) to try to make the family budget last. It may very well turn out to be an edifying experience, but initially I feel wary.
I don’t want to go to a poverty simulation because I am living in poverty. Not like a flippant use of the word “poor”; like I am well below the United States poverty line by any standard, and am trying to end the year with a small chunk of money with which to start grad school (first month’s rent, etc.). I have done/am doing the things I expect I will do at the simulation: navigated an application for food stamps, tried to figure out how to use the groceries available at the food pantry, existed on mostly rice and peanut butter for a few days til the next check comes in, weighed the costs and benefits of a $2 bus ride versus a 2-mile walk when I felt sick. I live in a questionable neighborhood, work a lot of evenings, and have no good way to transport a large amount of groceries (or anything else) on my own.
I hope this doesn’t come off as some kind of bizarre boasting. These are just some of the frustrating difficulties of life in poverty that you might not always think about, and that they might be able to simulate. If it gets people started thinking about some of the complexities of poverty, the simulation will have done some good.
But I sort of thought that joining The Lower Class would make me understand more than it has. Notwithstanding my education and other benefits of a well-off upbringing, notwithstanding all the help the nice church people give us, I thought that I would blur the line between Us and Them and have a better grasp of the problem (poverty) and the solution(?). How would it feel to be on food stamps? What would I do with the tiny allowance I gave myself after I bought toiletries out of it?
It feels fine to be on food stamps. They give you a little debit card that works just like any other debit card. You can buy pretty much anything edible with the money, and you know you’re not going to go hungry. And out of my little “discretionary” fund, I have bought a couple of clothing items and several burritos with friends. Unexpected things come up, the money runs out, I wish there were more, I wait to buy anything til the next 15th. And everything turns out OK. I am happy. I know I will get out of poverty.
This is why it’s hard to talk about poverty: because poverty – long-term, systemic, suck-the-life-out-of-a-city poverty - is not about money. Urban education is not about schools. And violence is not about guns. We want the world to be concrete and straightforward; then we can pick it apart and put it back together. We can study it and model it. We can simulate it.
What you can’t simulate, and what I would never experience no matter how long I lived on this income, is growing up like They did. It’s being abused, physically, verbally, or sexually; it’s no one telling you to do your homework; it’s a string of a parent’s significant others rotating through the house. You can’t simulate a lack of life skills like cooking and budgeting; a culture that derides education; or the desperation for love and attention that drives teenagers to become sexually active, birth control and public health campaigns be damned.
And the fuel driving the whole cycle around and around is the last thing you could ever simulate. You learn it every day, over and over, from all of those crappy situations above. It’s the thing I see everywhere, it will suffocate you if you’re not careful: the feeling – no, the absolute belief – that, powerless and unloved, you are utterly worthless.
Could it be that a poverty simulation is one more thing to keep us from having to face this? If I happen to be right, if that sense of worthlessness is the root of the toxic, self-perpetuating, all-destroying, cancerous poverty all these charitable people can’t seem to do anything about – how would we have to respond?
I think we would have to stop talking about poverty and money and school systems, and start loving people, one at a time. There is no gathering all the people and putting them through a self-worth workshop. If people are going to love themselves (and their kids and their neighbors), I think someone else will have to love them first. I think it’s a matter of looking a person in the eye and remembering their name. It’s inviting someone to your house for dinner and calling them when they don’t show up to make sure they’re OK. It’s forgiveness and patience and a thousand other very, very costly things. Because people are very, very costly.
But I think most people, the ostensible problem-solvers I mean, would truly honestly rather keep pouring money down the government and non-profit drain; keep holding benefit dinners and publishing research papers; keep finding ways around the poor and their individual bodies and souls, needy, sinful, beautiful, broken, precious as we all are. I think the policy makers would rather continue the debate between compassionless conservatism (“the poor need to take responsibility for themselves”) and condescending liberalism (“the poor can’t help themselves”) because it’s too hard to admit that real people are more complicated than all that.
I hope not. I hope we believe people should have their basic needs met and their situations improved, not to lower the crime rate or the welfare bill, but because the people themselves have intrinsic value. I hope we find a way to talk about poverty that includes poor people, all their raw ability to help themselves, and all the ways they need others’ help. May we remember those who built us up, who taught us what we were worth. May gratitude to the lover of our souls give us power to love someone else’s.