I awoke this morning remembering that I had promised to meet someone at 8:30 to pick up a check for a St. Vincent de Paul client (let’s call her “Angie”). Check in hand, I was to “collect” Angie, drive her to a used tire shop, replace four tires that had been slashed by a crazed neighbor and then deposit her back home. Angie’s very nice, many years my junior, attractive, polite and intelligent. She has 4 kids.
Her home is sparsely furnished. She’s way behind in her rent. As her bills mount, the only assistance Angie gets is food stamps, which for her family of five is well below $400 a month. A native of Alabama, she moved to central Ohio to get away from an abusive spouse.
She had a job then, but lost it when she was involved in an accident and no longer had dependable transportation. There’s no child support. Being from out of state, she knows no one. I spoke with Angie’s property manager, who is being patient while Angie tries to nail down a job. She since purchased another used car, which, in turn was vandalized.
Angie phoned around and located a shop that offered 4 used tires for $70…quite a feat. The check from my parish was made out in that company’s name.
When I arrived, her 2 youngest were home from school with colds. They rode in back and behaved well. We went to the shop…no signs of life. They were to have opened at 9AM. We waited. No one showed. At 9:40, we left.
After checking with a couple other shops, we finally found one who’d meet that price but couldn’t accept our check. I resolved to charge the repair on my card, get reimbursed and struck out, clients in tow to find a couple cups of Joe.
Tim Horton’s beckoned. We bought beverages and some sweets for the kids before returning to the tire shop, where the replacements, vastly superior to the originals, were ready to load. We even managed to pick up a missing hubcap for an extra $5. I dropped off my “cargo” and “auto piloted” home, replaying in my mind the morning’s events, which underscore several things I’ve learned about poverty, fear, despair and feeling human.
First, the reasons poverty exists are as varied as its victims. Each story is different. Next, poverty is dynamic. It changes from day to day. The wolf at the front door gets immediately attention–until Wylie Coyote scratches at the back. Solve one problem and another appears. Organize one pile of bills and another arrives. It’s a feeling of helplessness that builds, cascades and overwhelms.
The baby needs milk. No problem–the cow’s producing. But late on your mortgage, the bank auctions the cow. You’re about to lose the house, where it’s at least warm, until the propane runs out. Neighbors, family or perhaps friends loan you space heaters to keep you from freezing. Then your electricity is shut off . You’ve sought help for months, spent countless hours, days, even weeks applying for public assistance, talking to private charities, wracking your brain for solutions. At every turn there are long lines, disgruntled, overwhelmed public servants and families in the “system” that seem to be even worse off than yours who still await relief.
You dig up someone to watch the kids so you can look for a job. The interviews go well. One job looks particularly promising. You’re contacted for a second interview. The kids need to see the dentist. At least you have Medicaid. You arrange all of the appointments and pray you have enough gas to get it all done. Psyched up and wearing your “interview best,” you get to your car to see that all of your tires have all been slashed. Your let your car insurance lapse months ago but even if current, it would fail to cover such vandalism.
You’re “stranded”…no interview, no dentist appointments for the kids, no working car, no job. You’re told “Take the bus” but the line doesn’t go where the potential employer is. You feel defeated.
Poverty is a maze… a ponderous parade of changing focus, layer upon hopeless layer of worry, fixed firmly on a foundation of shattered dreams, regret and despair. The face of America’s poor is cloaked in ubiquitous ambiguity, so pervasive that to many, it’s invisible. America’s poor suffocates under an illusion of progress: public library viewed social service web pages that often lead nowhere, agencies paralyzed by moribund policies echoed by laborious answering machine menus that stultify even the most astute caller. When you’re on the street, cold and hungry with all you own on your back, kids in tow, noses running, the last thing you need to hear through the receiver of the only working pay phone in blocks is a detached, sing-song voice menu of options so lengthy and poorly written that not only does it defy comprehension, it begs to be replayed to reveal only that you lack the proper documentation to avail your family of available relief.
Getting help takes time and patience. It requires stacks of often redundant applications, documentation, government-issued cards and IDs, appointments kept and missed, coupons, vouchers and a labyrinth of frequently daunting eligibility requirements. Once touted as a country in which anyone could rise from rags to riches, America’s poor of today are dehumanized, even victimized by social support systems sorely in need of overhaul. Those who haven’t “given up” and doggedly pursue a job face a deck well stacked against them.
I commend anyone possessing the grit to weather such restrictive social service processes…to rise and return day after day, to scour the “Help Wanted” notices, make the calls, set the appointments and make arrangements necessary to even interview. I have even higher regard for those who are single heads of households. If it’s so hard for the best of them, imagine what it must be like for those less fortunate, say for instance, an adult who reads at a third-grade level, if at all. Think of walking hours in the rain (for lack of bus fare) to keep a scheduled appointment, only to be told you lack the right form of ID–or showed up a day early.
Some simply give up, spending days, weeks–even months in situational isolation. Research on adults living in social isolation found numerous negative health effects, including all-cause mortality, morbidity, and cardiovascular disease (House 2001).
On the last topic I mentioned, “feeling human”…when one shows simple courtesy, out of the “blue,” when even the smallest comfort is offered without “strings,” it reminds us that we’re all in this together. When things fall apart, as they will, when plans fail, as many must, simple acts of kindness convey respect and restore dignity in ways words cannot. Such seemingly trivial acts can have lasting impact.
Try it. Hold a door open for someone whose load is heavy. Offer a ride to a mom and kids caught in the rain. Buy a hot cup of coffee for someone who hasn’t been able to afford it in days or weeks. Talk to someone. And LISTEN. Such simple gifts enrich us all. They make us feel more connected.
I write as a mere observer. I have no answers, just opinions. I confess that I feel there MUST be a better way to deal with the profound problems poverty poses to our most vulnerable citizens. That no better way is apparent is I feel an indictment of our priorities as a nation.