The greatest gift of poverty is compassion – this is something I know and carry in my heart. No one had to teach me. I have always known that “not having” does not mean “not worthy.”
My mom immigrated here. She has never been one prone to excess, except in the area of hard work. My father was ill, a lot, and with mental illness, which in the 50’s and 60’s (not so much unlike today) was not something openly discussed. My birth coincided with one such collapse which resulted in his hospitalization at a state hospital where he received electroshock therapy (without anesthesia) while she tried to keep body and soul together with a 6 year old, a 9 month old and an infant (me). I must have absorbed her sadness and desperation through my pores, because I cannot remember a time when I didn’t understand with every fiber of my being what it meant to be poor. I cannot remember a time when I didn’t feel the drive to make a difference.
Over the past months I have been seeking employment that combines a passion for advocacy born out of my childhood experience with my unique educational background. One of the things they tell you before you go to law school is that if you don’t want to practice law, you can do anything; a law degree opens doors. I believed this. During the first six months of unemployment I was optimistic, however as the months wore on and I descended from merely poor to destitute, my optimism evaporated. Unfortunately so did my compassion for myself and my belief in my own worthiness.
I have $40 to my name. I have sold most of what I own of any value; I am a heartbeat from homelessness. I am a heartbeat away from losing what little I have left. I experience every day the isolation described by Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman in his New York Times op ed “Poverty is Poison.”
Living in or near poverty has always been a form of exile, of being cut off from the larger society. But the distance between the poor and the rest of us is much greater than it was 40 years ago, because most American incomes have risen in real terms while the official poverty line has not. To be poor in America today, even more than in the past, is to be an outcast in your own country.
The shame and isolation I feel as an educated woman unable to earn a living is soul killing. My age and education make it all the harder to start over. For professionals like me there is no unemployment insurance. For a single woman with no family, there is little support. Without a family or partner to lean on through this experience I am painfully alone and vulnerable. I know what it feels like to choose between food and utilities. I know the fear that comes from not having proper medical care. I know the pain of not wanting to quash the dreams and hopes of my child who sees opportunity everywhere except in his own home.
The answer to my, or anyone’s poverty is not charity; the answer is opportunity. A job does more than pay the bills, it restores purpose and meaning belief to a life. Our elected officials must work first and foremost on job creation and reform of banking, bankruptcy and credit reporting practices. Those fortunate enough to have good jobs or own businesses, must step up to the plate and mentor those changing jobs or fields. History has shown that without effective government action and true community support we will create a new level of intractable poverty.
From the myth of the 1960’s “welfare queen” to the scapegoat subprime borrowers of today’s Wall Street crisis, there is a nearly universal belief that somehow being poor is a choice. Overcoming the belief that the poor “cause” their condition, and that a lifetime of poverty is acceptable, is a daunting task. In “Strategic storytelling and social innovation” Michael J. Margolis points out that reason alone cannot overcome entrenched cultural beliefs and move people to action.
A well-crafted story becomes the platform that allows people to See, Feel, and Believe in what you are doing. By starting with the right story frame, you accelerate the pace at which people will be able to locate themselves and feel drawn into your story.
To argue change, don’t rely on statistics; tell a story. That is what Blog Action Day 2008 is about – telling stories to move people to action.
It isn’t easy or comfortable to tell my story, but I am telling it because I know that within my small neighborhood there are many stories just like mine. Families barely getting by, who, just like me, are not looking for a handout. What we are looking for is hope and support.