Poverty is real. So too are the effects of poverty, which often exceed one’s financial limitations.
I recently engaged in an intense debate with someone as we waited for our flight. The conversation was intense, not in an overly aggressive manner, but more because we both were passionate about our perspectives. It was a hearty conversation that left us both with something to think about long after we went our separate ways.
The subject of poverty arose and I and the gentlemen I was communicating with had very different opinions of poverty, what causes it, the people who are generally affected by it, and how to overcome poverty.
An element that made the conversation so intriguing to me was the similarities the gentleman and I shared. We are both around the same age, African-American and were raised by hard-working college educated single mothers. He is a strategist for a Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm and I run a newspaper so even our professional industries align with one another.
Despite our similarities, our views on poverty were drastically different. Perhaps the first thing that we disagreed on was that individuals who are poor choose to be that way because of limitations they have placed on themselves.
“There’s no reason anyone in this country should be poor,” he said. “There are lots of resources available to help people. They need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and do something about it.”
I told him his comment seemed to generalize people and that not everyone who is poor is also shiftless or lazy.
Then I asked him if he knew any “poor” people.
His “no” response put things in perspective for me. It appeared to me that because this man existed in a bubble that separated him from others who had different circumstances, he simply didn’t understand their plight.
That’s when I told him about a woman I know who is raising three children on her own after her husband died unexpectedly two years ago. The woman has a college degree, works a full time job as well as a part-time job and according to government standards, she is considered poor. Every week this woman is struggling to get by.
“Forget making ends meet,” she once told me. “My ends are too far apart to meet. I just need to get by.”
Then she explained to me how she struggles to pay her monthly bills and usually just pays “something on them” because she can’t afford the full balance. That method, though necessary for her, is also troubling because she is never able to truly catch up due to the partial payments. In addition, she often has to rely on babysitters or child care providers to supervise her young children while she works both jobs. The struggling parent is able to get some food assistance, which helps her, but she says it’s still extremely challenging.
And while providing for the basic needs of her family is difficult, it becomes even more so if an emergency or unexpected situation arises like when her car broke down a couple months ago and the city’s bus system didn’t service the area where her fulltime job is limited. Due to not having the money to immediately repair her car, she has been written up twice for being late to her job. Her employer informed her that another tardy will result in termination.
As a result of her on-going financial woes, the widowed-woman suffers from hypertension and bouts of depression.
As the man and I began to part ways as we boarded the plane, we mentioned how interesting the conversation was. He asked me to consider his perspective while on the plane and he said he would consider mine.
When the flight ended and I made my way off the plane and into Washington’s busy airport, I saw him a few feet ahead of me. He waited for me to get to him and he said, “I thought about what we discussed and I still feel the same way. Poor people are lazy. They can change their situations.”
As I carefully chose my words, I told him that I too thought about our conversation. I said that in some regards he was correct: there are some poor people who are able to do more to get themselves out of their current predicament and they should. But then I reminded him of the single mother I referenced before.
I said, “Her story could have been the story of either one of our mothers. Until we have compassion for the least of these, we will never open our minds to resolving some of this country’s problems. We have to look at the whole person and the whole problem. We have to step outside our comfortable boxes and look at some very real and uncomfortable things.”
He and I decided that we would agree to disagree and we went our separate ways. And that’s how our views were left: divided and unresolved…much like so many things in this country.
You can email comments to Shannon Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org.