The Pew Center recently released the results of a study that found that many Americans believe that the “poor” have it easy. The strength of this belief has a great deal to do with a person’s political ideology, although after reading how the questions were structured, I have to question some of the conclusions of the study. But that is not the point of this commentary. This is one woman’s perspective on what it feels like to be poor.
First, let me say I really hate all the words used to describe poverty. I can’t use any of them comfortably. That said, I have a strong personal testimony of being poor. My Maasai friend, Kimeli, says Americans have no concept of poverty. He grew up in a tiny hut with a dirt floor, with one set of clothing, and no running water, electricity or school in his village.
So, poverty is relational to time and place and perception. I concede to Kimeli his truth, but I have mine as well.
I no longer count myself as poor. That makes me very blessed, but as a good friend recently pointed out, I wear my experiences in my personal and professional affect. Here are just a few of my memories about many years of living with a serious lack of money:
It means you can’t miss a day of work, for any reason, without risking being unable to pay your bills. It means guessing whether your children are really sick enough to go to the doctor.
I remember when my oldest son had pneumonia. As I watched them take his tiny infant body and stick it in a baby-sized tube to take X-rays, my fears for him were barely stronger than the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that it might take us years to pay the hospital bill.
Being poor means having no money to clean the carpet when it needs it, or to paint the walls after the fingerprints have been washed off so many times the sheetrock shows through. It means you cry at night when you find out you have been telling your daughter you just bought her new shoes, so she can’t have out grown them already (and you can’t buy another pair). Then you find out she has blisters on all her toes from wearing shoes that are too small.
It means that you are grateful for every time you find something that fits someone in the family — and that the person will wear — in a bag of hand-me-down clothes.
It means you may go years without going to a dentist. It means deciding if you can juggle enough bills to pay for soccer or basketball for your kids, and dreading it when they are invited to birthday party or need money for a field trip.
I spent months taking all of my children every morning on the city bus to day care, running to catch it again to get to work, and doing it over again every night because I had a choice between continuing to save for our first home of our own or getting the master cylinder on our van fixed. It means I owe so much money in student loans that I may never know what it’s like not to be paying on them. It means feeling afraid, and alienated, and laying awake at night worrying.
I can’t comment on the stresses of affluence. I have no relevant experience on which to base an opinion. Just don’t talk to me about the poor having it easy. I am not listening.
Stacey Howard of Roseburg is a native Oregonian. She has a master’s degree in business administration from Northwest Christian University and works as a program director at a local nonprofit organization. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.