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Poverty and its power

September 9th, 2005 · No Comments

I confess that when I first read John Scalzi’s Being Poor via Dina Mehta’s post, I laughed. Ted and I sleep on a lumpy futon bed and no one would describe us as poor. We also had a time in our marriage when all we could afford to drive was an $800 car. Even then I would not have said we were poor. In a subsequent post, John Scalzi explained why he felt the need to describe “being poor” and I appreciate his motivations, his experience and his compassion.

Being poor means different things to different people, as evidenced by the response to John Scalzi’s post. For example, in the Bay Area, with its high housing prices, many people who live next to the freeway are quite rich. This is a description that changes based on nation, culture and region and on a personal basis of experience. Although I agreed with some of his descriptions, I thought his list couldn’t compare to the one by zigzackly Dina linked, titled Being Really Poor, and the pictures she used to illustrate what it means to be poor in India.

However danah’s post encouraged me to go read the comments on Being Poor. And I did. Wow! The hundreds of writers (enough that John Scalzi created a second post for comments) reveal the difference of definitions but also the ways many have suffered. It is powerful. Thanks to everyone who shared stories!

Regardless of how poverty is defined, both John Scalzi and people writing in the comments agree that being poor impacts you forever, even if someday you are no longer in that situation: But I will note that having been poor in some sense never leaves you. Poverty has power.

While I wouldn’t say I have ever been poor, I had moments during my childhood that came close to a few of the descriptions in Scalzi’s post and comments. Maybe I laughed because the post fell too close to what I knew. There was a lot of financial [and emotional] stress. We grew up drinking powdered milk, mixed in a purple pitcher I can still see and smell, because we couldn’t afford fresh. We had times when all we had to cook for dinner was a box of macaroni or an envelope of dried Lipton soup. We worried how long the old car would last, and what would happen when it died.

I carry the impact of those times with me today. If I am running out of groceries and low on food supplies at home, I feel anxious. When I go to the store and stock the pantry and fridge, I feel comfort. It’s an automatic emotional response based on memory, not rationally-based on our current checking account balance or proximity to Safeway.

Financial poverty is powerful. When a child grows up hearing the phrase “we can’t afford it” and living deprivation daily, it burns into the mind, like a branding. It’s like a sharp bitter taste you will never forget.

I also believe there are other kinds of poverty that are powerful. One can be poor in health, poor in relationships or poor in spirit. There are many ways to feel deprived and denied, emptied and abandoned, cheated, imprisoned and oppressed. There are many ways to be hungry. And yes, many of them can be related to each other.

Fear of poverty is also powerful. Many people who were once poor are afraid they will be poor again. And some who have never been poor fear what they have never known.

Poverty is powerful. Yet I believe that generosity is more powerful. The best way to overcome the fear of poverty is not to hoard but to give.

I want my memories of macaroni and powdered milk to motivate me to pour out whatever I have to those who are poor in any way. That’s the power of poverty I want to experience now.

Whether or not we can agree on a definition of poverty, we can all give something to each other. Thank you to John Scalzi, to Dina, to everyone who has responded and engaged in this crucial conversation. Thank you for giving to us all.

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