Thursday, February 19, 2009

poverty and worldview

I wasn't thinking much about poverty when I started this discussion, and yet it keeps coming up in comments. So now I'm thinking about it.

K. said, "We both came from families that didn't have much as far as worldly posessions, yet I didn't realize we were poor until years later. But that never held us back from becoming successful, intelligent, caring individuals. So it is a little difficult for us to understand why others let things like poverty hold them back." K., I really liked your comment and I think you are right that our worldviews have a lot to do with our upbringing. And not just from our parents, but from the strength of generations of resilient ancestors to boot. Maybe I should clarify that when I said I have a problem with an attitude of victimization, I really wasn't thinking of poor people and why they can't pull themselves out of poverty. I've noticed a feeling of victimhood in people from all walks of life, and even in people who had a very good upbringing. Within the same family, there are people who feel like victims and people who don't.

I don't know much about the causes of poverty. I haven't experienced poverty or even read much about it. I do have this experience, though, for what it's worth: Long, long ago, when I was in my early twenties, J and I were assigned to work with an impoverished family. We were to help them set goals and achieve them. I was so excited about this project, especially after getting to know this couple a little better. They were college educated, loving, faithful, hopeful, optimistic, and VERY hardworking. "This will be a cinch," thought I.

However, I quickly discovered that it would not be anything close to a cinch. In spite of working long hours, having every intention of paying their bills on time, believing they were doing everything they could to live frugally, this couple always lived on the edge of financial disaster. And sometimes not on the edge--sometimes smack in the middle of disaster. Talking with them, you would never think them capable of making outrageously bad financial decisions. And yet they did all the time. It seemed to me their unfailingly optimism actually worked against them in this regard, enabling them to leap headlong into extreme risks that a more pessimistic sort never would have considered. They were exemplary parents in many ways. They truly wanted the best for their children. And yet, they could never get it that showering their kids with stuff, especially stuff they couldn't pay for, is NOT the best.

I found this very depressing. I saw that we were not able to help them, and at the time I thought it was because we were nearly ten years younger. I thought they probably didn't like taking advice from a young couple. Maybe that was true. But honestly, when I look back, I wonder if anyone would have been able to help.


athena said...

i think you would enjoy reading "the working poor: invisible in ameria" by david shipler. he writes a lot about those that work hard and are still poor.

Anonymous said...

You've been away from Maine to long. There are a lot of working poor there. People who work well over 40 hours a week and just get by. Talk to Gram and you will be enlightened.

Calandria said...

I did know some poor people in Maine. Their substance-abuse problems and violence were what I noticed. As a kid I I just assumed people were poor because they 1)drank too much, 2)beat their family members, or 3)spoke with an almost-unintelligible Maine accent.

athena said...

reminds me of the movie once were warriors. very scary. don't watch it, LOL.

Anonymous said...

Well, drinking too much I think has A LOT to do with it. But yeah, I mean there are a lot of working poor in Maine. In fact, not too far from yourself. I remember when I was a kid I used to ask Mum and Dad if we were poor, but they always denied it. They insisted that we were well off. Looking back on it - and being old enough to understand the stories Mum and Dad tell - we were definitely poor. Maybe not abject poverty, but I mean, Dad was out of work for 2 years with 5 kids and attending college; that's obviously going to put a strain on your wallet.

Mama Ava said...

I did a poverty simulation once that lasted a couple hours. We were given a set of circumstances and basically had to move from table to table, living. We were all keen, knowing that our education and backgrounds would allow us to get out of the game, but no. You could never get ahead! Just when you might get a break, something would happen and you'd lose whatever you gained. I remember having to make really crappy decisions about the lesser of 2 evils for daycare and angry that this was all I could choose, because of other circumstances. I could never find ANY place to cut back to save and if I managed to save something, something else would come up. And it was never a huge crisis...except it was.

The topic was on the culture of privelege...not the money or materials things, but the hidden privelege that we are raised with. It's what you've been calling "pioneer spirit" or whatever--that resiliency, perseverence, that we have received that is so inherent in us that we rarely consider it. It was an eye-opening revelation about attitudes and values and tenacity and how people growing up in the culture of poverty are not exposed to that--and that even those of us who have those skills couldn't navigate our way out of a silly game.

Anonymous said...

When I was young we were poor but I never felt it. The feeling of poverty is different then dollars and cents. Like Mal said, you can be poor but some (particularly children) don't feel it.
The working poor I know are not violent or drink to much. They work hard and now that most are in their 40s and 50s its starting to get depressing but when we were young it wasn't.
Age may also have something to do with feeling. As we get older we realize we have no pention, social security or other assets yet we feel our bodies getting slower. Its a scary thing.
I'm glad I live here where I don't have to worry about health care and my education costs are nothing.

ML said...

Occasionally when my older children were little they would ask me if we were poor. I would respond, "Do you feel poor?" Invariably the answer was no, to which I would reply, "Neither do I." I don't know if they worried about it beyond that little conversation--I hope not.
If I look back at our financial condition then, we certainly fell below the "poverty line," yet we had all our physical needs met--a roof, food, clothing, education, transportation. Beyond that, we were generally happy, busy, and full of hope--how could that possibly qualify as poor regardless of some arbitrary set-point?
There are people in this world that experience true poverty--and often through no fault of their own! I can only imagine what kind of strength it takes to meet, much less overcome, that kind of a challenge.
It must be even harder for those who are beaten down because of their own bad choices. Who knows what goes into making a person do what he does or be what he is?
Sorry this is so long Calandria.

Dina said...

Wow, this is a heavy topic! I think I was the one who threw the poverty comment out there on your last post. Sorry if I derailed the topic.

Instead of people that are poverty stricken, I think you meant those around you that could make something more of their circumstance but instead seem to wallow in it. I hear it all the time on a twin website that I'm on. The gov't OWES me this or that. Very much victims and not able to move on and help themselves.

Dave Thurston said...

I had a conversation with someone today regarding people that just waste (no, that is not a strong enough word - perhaps squander) yep, squander their time away watching TV (I mean for hours upon hours upon hours).

I wonder how much that squandering plays into poverty (poverty of money, of ideas, of life, of love. . .)

Calandria said...

Athena, I'm putting that on my Goodreads list.

Mama Ava, I don't think I called it "pioneer spirit," although that probably works for those of you from the west. That poverty simulation sounds very interesting. It reminds me of this couple we were trying to help--always in crisis mode.

Yesterday I heard Nikki Giovani, an African American poet, say something like this: "I think the black wealth is love. When I was a child we were poor but I never knew it." Poverty level in every country, as far as I know, is determined by comparison: Who has less money than everyone else around them? So what is "poor" here in the U.S. could be relative wealth in other places.