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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Why Poverty Will Make You a Better Person

A pleasant Monday to you all, dear readers. Like many around the world, I too am mourning the death of David Bowie. His cancer diagnosis and death were sudden and shocking to all of us. Here at home, we've been playing his music all afternoon as tribute to his life and talents.

Day 7 of the 21 day blogging challenge is an interesting prompt. I expect this will be something of a controversial post since poverty is seriously stigmatized here in America. But as with anything else on this blog, it is from MY perspective that I write about life as an impoverished parent with a family to care for. This includes the hardships of being low income, but also the joys that come with it.

When I arrived in Arizona in 2008, I didn't have the slightest inkling that in a few short years, I would be living in poverty. I grew up middle-class in a bourgeois suburb of Chicago, IL and figured that once I graduated from college and got started on my career, I would retain my middle-class status shortly thereafter. Like a lot of America's petite-bourgeoisie, I had been indoctrinated from childhood that poor people were Others. Poor people were the fly-covered starving children in Africa or dirty slum dwellers in Latin America and the Indian subcontinent. If there were domestic poors, they got that way by being stupid and/or lazy, fit for menial tasks like flipping burgers at McDonald's or mowing lawns. It never crossed my mind that my also seemingly-middle class neighbors might be living paycheck to paycheck or relying on handouts for help.

My graduation, 2012

Unfortunately, life has a way of throwing wrenches into even the best-laid plans. I had a sinking suspicion that after the market crashed in 2008, I would have to live in poverty for a while. The right-wing squawkers I devoted myself to listening to between classes at school all said as much. I knew that because the job market was shattered, I would have to take whatever job I could find, regardless of what the pay was.

Meeting my husband that fateful October morning in 2011 cemented my foreseeable impoverished future. It was strange, here was a man who was quite intelligent with education to match, and yet he was practically homeless, heavily reliant on what sparse government benefits he qualified for to get by! Even stranger, he was genuinely happy with his life despite the crushing poverty he lived under. How could this be so?

The one picture I have of me at the hoarded out junkyard camp my hubby lived in when we met. I would come over here to play with and get familiar with kittens.

I have come a long way since that morning, both in my understanding of poverty in America and in how I cope with its existence in my life. My Catholic faith has played a crucial role in my impoverished existence by both bringing me into a deeper, more dependent relationship with the Lord and connecting me with the various charities founded by the Church to carry out its social justice mission. When I became a Catholic, I instinctively knew that I was going to slip significantly down the economic ladder because Catholicism is traditionally the most despised religion of largely protestant America (in the post 9-11 world, Islam became the recent addition to that list and has superseded Catholicism as America's most hated religion for the time being), and I accepted this fate because I knew this was what God wanted for me. Poverty can either make someone a true believer or an atheist, but not without instilling a degree of humility first. I began to appreciate why Jesus called upon people to give up their earthly wealth and follow Him, and why many Orders in the Church take vows of material poverty. With less material wealth to deal with, the less bullshit you have to put up with like the work-a-jerk mentality in which we work at jobs we hate for money we spend on stuff to please people we don't care about. You not only learn to appreciate charity, but you also begin to have empathy. In this absurdly hypercompetitive world, empathy is something that is critically lacking, relegated only to the weak willed and weak minded.

For the record, I must state that compared to the poverty of places like Africa, Latin America, India, etc. Americans have it good. Generally speaking, though exceptions exist, our homes have electricity, running water, and a means of seasonably-appropriate climate control. Electronics like TVs, cell phones, and computers are cheap with impoverished homes having at least one or more of such items. Clothes are cheap and easy to come by, but hunger still persists despite food being available nearly everywhere and with food pantries struggling to try and bridge the gap. As it stands, even the crumbs of society's wealth which trickle down to the bottom feeders like me tend to be pretty good.

Poverty can also make you a more resourceful person. Since your funds are limited, you search high and low for the best deals you can find on needed essentials or the occasional splurge. I can state with honesty that I've become a better homeowner through poverty because I've had to help my husband fix things around the trailer and I also have a better understanding of how the inner workings of a car function because we have to do our own repairs and maintenance. I've begun learning how to make cheap foods edible, thanks to poverty. To be put back into my old life where I would have had to contact contractors for home repair jobs or mechanics to change my oil would make me feel very awkward and wasteful.

My husband relayed to me a saying he heard once about how only the very wealthy and the very poor understand how the world works while everyone else in the middle is clueless. This is a tragic consequence of the deliberate concealment of the class struggle. America tried to make its society classless, and indeed in school, we were taught how we were all "equals" because our society had no ancien regime. Truth be told, America DID have its classes. It had its upper crust elite (plantation owners, powerful political families), its petite-bourgeoisie (small business shopkeepers, merchants, urban dwellers), working families, slaves (later, freed men), and untouchables at the very bottom (catch-all for anyone who didn't fit anywhere else in the society, like criminals, the extremely impoverished, Catholics, "white trash", etc) with the appropriate opportunities (or lack thereof) available for each strata of society. Just like in the Old World, those who had money flaunted it to remake society in their image, and the extremely impoverished at the bottom could see right through their tricks and refuse to have anything to do with the reconstruction.

Scene from the old trailer. Started from the bottom...

The impoverished life also makes one appreciate the little things. When my hubby and I first got married and were looking for a place to begin our married life together, we found a rotten trailer in a tucked away trailer park in an impoverished part of town. The trailer had a rotten roof that leaked when it rained, there was no working heat or cooling, no refrigerator and water could only be turned on at certain times because the RV toilet would overflow from running water due to a faulty valve. We had no hot water and when we needed to bathe, a large pot of wat

My husband relayed to me a saying he heard once about how only the very wealthy and the very poor understand how the world works while eveer had to be boiled on the stove and poured into the tub. You would not let a dog you cared about live in there, much less human beings. However, it was either move into this rotten beer can trailer cuz it's all you can afford, or sleep out in the desert and become coyote food. Under normal circumstances, my hubby, who had been housed from homelessness for about six months at that point, would have said screw it and gone into the desert. But, he did not want to subject me to that life since he knew I was not prepared to live that way. So, we took the trailer, moved in, and as I began working and saving money, we fixed up what we could to try and make our rotten beer can a bit more habitable. Friends and associates hooked us up with some small fridges, a propane water heater, food and water, a swamp cooler for the summer months, lumber, and a heater. My parents even bought the PEX pipe plumbing for the trailer, though it was presented as a bribe.

Even with all this generous help and periodic cleanings, there was only so much we could do to the trailer because it was in such poor shape. It really never should have left the junkyard it was pulled from. When my family bought this current trailer for us just prior to the baby being born, it felt like we moved into a real house! I'd all but forgotten what it was like to have working appliances and a roof that didn't leak! We also had more space in the new trailer and we could even fit a couch into the living room, something unimaginable in the old trailer. But the two years spent living in the rotten trailer taught me that I really did not need much space to live comfortably. It could get crowded with stuff, but I was never claustrophobic at any point in the trailer. All I needed was my spot on the bed, a clear path to the bathroom, a certain minimum of closet space and a place to plop my shoes and backpack when I came home from work. This was a huge accomplishment, coming from somebody who'd grown up in a two-story four bedroom, four bathroom suburban home. Even now as I write this, I'm filled with gratitude and appreciation for having a better place to raise my child.

Now we here. Taken when we viewed the new trailer for the first time just prior to our moving in

When you live in an impoverished neighborhood, an interesting dichotomy emerges. Yes, there can be high crime rates because people who have little lash out either at those who have something worth taking or out of frustration because they can't escape their socioeconomic status, but at the same time, there is a stronger sense of community. You don't see that kind of community vibe in wealthier neighborhoods where everyone's home is set up like a fortress to keep others out. When people who don't have much material wealth share a common living area, neighbors tend to look out for each other. Unusual visitors are noted and disputes are settled as well as concern raised when someone fails to come home from work or school at the usual time.

Humans are an adaptable species. From the natives in South America's jungles to the Inuits in the Arctic, humans can adapt to a variety of extreme living conditions. Life in poverty in America is hard because just like in the old days, money determines your placement in life both in terms of education and what sorts of opportunities are available for you to advance in society in addition to what products are available for you to use in life. It has always been that way. But just because life in poverty is hard doesn't mean that it has to be unpleasant. Like everyone else, you just get used to things and do the best you can with what you have available to work with. By taking advantage of what aid programs and charities we can, in addition to some strategic hoarding, we have been able to build up a comfortable existence for ourselves here. I'm not glamorizing poverty, as there's nothing glamorous about wondering whether you'll have a roof over your head next month. I'm just shining some dignity on my life as an impoverished woman because there are many lessons to be learned from poverty, both good and bad.

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