The Invisible Poor

When my son Alex started first grade he came from a pep rally ready to raise money for the school. He gathered a bowl full of small toys and office supplies and told me he was selling them for $5. I found the magazine from school and explained that he was supposed to sell the items in the magazine. 5 minutes later he was very upset. “I have to sell the stuff in this magazine?!” he demanded. “Yes,” I calmly explained. “Great!” he said as he flung the magazine to the floor, “We don’t even HAVE any of this stuff!!”

'Tis the season for fundraisers … and charity events … and end of year donation appeals. Whether we celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanza, whether we embrace the season through the lens of secular celebration or religious tradition, this time of year at its best is about giving. The winter holidays are a time to remember the joy and delight we discover in giving of ourselves to others.

And we are good at giving! We give to family. We give to friends. We even give to strangers. Today we asked you to bring toys for the Ferrysburg City Hall collection. Some of us will toss our change in red kettles, bring a coat to the People Center, or adopt a family in need. We are a people who love to give. It feels good to help out, to lend a hand up. But if we really want to make any kind of difference, our giving and our attention can’t be limited to the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.

Because poverty isn’t seasonal. Poverty lasts all year long, even if is isn’t always as obvious.  The invisible poor are right here – including factory workers, college graduates, retired seniors, single moms and disabled adults – people we see and even interact with every day – often without a clue about their financial struggles.

As many as 35% of Ottawa County Households struggle financially. 45% in the city of Grand Haven and 38% in Ferrysburg. And that translates into struggles with childcare and education, food security, healthcare, and transportation. The World Health Organization has described poverty as the greatest cause of suffering on earth.

With numbers that high, how can we not know? Shame is the most persistent attribute of present-day poverty. People have become reluctant to acknowledge that they are poor, ashamed that they can’t provide for their children, embarrassed to be seen using their Bridge card at Meijers, carrying the added burden of feeling like they are doing something wrong.

Because for the most part, the invisible poor do not blame the system as much as they tend to blame themselves. And that makes sense because so much of our discussion about poverty these days seems to forget that this is an issue of social justice, preferring to attach blame to individuals and their bad choices.

So let’s just put this on the table right now. We ALL make bad choices. Rich and poor. We all mess up. We all wish we could get a do-over. We all suffer consequences for our actions. But it is also true that every single one of us is where we are at least in part due to circumstance, coincidence, luck and chance.  

The Invisible Poor are aware of their own bad choices and they are more and more willing to accept the blame for what once they might have blamed on bad luck, fate, event God’s will. And kids are especially good at accepting that things are somehow all their fault.

Individual responsibility is a part of the equation for everybody, but it is not the reason for wide spread, growing entrenched societal poverty. If we are going to address the bigger picture, we need to look beyond the individual to the systems in which they operate.

But that isn’t what those in charge want. Punitive policies enhance a feeling of guilt and lead the poor to internalize the judgement of their financial superiors – the rich, the legislators and the moralists.

So how did this happen? The poor have always been told that they are to blame, but they resisted taking on that blame because they knew that no matter how hard they worked or tried to embrace the values of society, they could never become self-sufficient.   

But as society changed and more people rose above poverty, there grew a new audience willing to believe the poor were culpable – mostly the previously poor. And it became so easy to lump the poor in with other social groups like drug addicts, alcoholics, slobs, spongers, parasites and all the other moral outlaws of plenty brought to our attention through the press.

The majority today are the no longer poor, and sadly, many of the no longer poor have turned against those that have not taken advantage of all that capitalism wishes to shower upon them. The poor are now the minority so it’s a lot easier to view them with resentment and hatred. They no longer pose a threat to the wellbeing of the rest and can be treated with disdain – almost as if they actually deserve it.

My own relationship with money has been complicated and mixed. I didn’t grow up in poverty, but I did experience it as a single mother with two kids. There have been times in my life when I have been embarrassed by a large home that felt like more than I needed and times when I simply did not have enough, and experienced for myself the fear and insecurity of not making ends meet. As well as the guilt of knowing I was taking from the system instead of contributing to it. 

Shame makes people hide. Shame makes people invisible. So they don’t yell for affordable housing, decent nutrition, affordable health care. Instead, they stand in the shadows and accept assistance with silent gratitude. Meanwhile, the wealthy are given an opportunity to continue their self-righteous defamation and the politicians are happy to maintain and argue for practices that only help one end of the economic spectrum.

The images of poverty that emerged during the depression were haunting. Men in soup lines. Worried women with their children. Ramshackle homes. Poverty looks a lot different in most of America today. The poor aren’t dirty, their clothes aren’t torn. You don’t know for sure that someone actually is or isn’t poor. Because one of the tenets of poverty is to try not to look poor, try not to act poor.

But why? Why are those living in poverty trying to hide it? Shouldn’t the shame of poverty fall on those with too much, not those with too little? Well… not exactly. Because shame is never a motivator for change. Making people ashamed of their wealth or even their greed will never make people more generous. It will only push them into the shadows or make them disguise their wealth so that they, too, can pass undetected through the social maze.

So what are we to do? Whatever we can. Give. Give a toy, a donation, a meal, a coat. And do it all year round. Volunteer. Give your time, your skills, your abilities to advance causes that affect the poor. Advocate. Take political action, vote, sign petitions, speak to your representatives at all levels of government. Listen and support. Be a safe place for people to share the reality of their economic struggles and their economic windfall without fear of judgment or condemnation.

Change the Narrative. Don’t allow people to be scapegoated for circumstances that are beyond their control. Be a voice of encouragement so that people don’t give up and give in to hopelessness and despair. Use your own experience to be an example of resiliency or generosity or whatever your circumstances allow you to demonstrate as human strength and well- being.  

We will get absolutely nowhere with poverty through shame. Instead we need to identify and remove the very real barriers that exist in our society that trap people within the injustice of poverty.

To quote a meme I saw the other day, "Keep your coins. What we need is change."