Poverty exists across the globe, even in a country like the United States that appears to be so rich. We are often judgmental of those struggling to survive. We see their situations as self induced, the result of laziness or poor planning. It is sometimes difficult for us to understand how someone might get themselves into so much of a dilemma that they become homeless. We see all of the opportunities that our country affords and can’t imagine why everyone is not doing well.
Sometimes it feels as though some people simply do not want to do the hard work that we are doing or make the sacrifices that might help them become financially sound. We see people on welfare who spend their money on frivolous things that we do not believe they really need. Sometimes they appear to be overweight begging the question of why they require donations from a food pantry. We find it irritating that they have cell phones and name brand purses but can’t seem to pay their bills.
The truth is that some people are indeed irresponsible but many of the poor have simply become entrapped by unexpected circumstances. It only takes a few disastrous events to destroy the financial security of a family and when the head of the household is a single mom the odds are even better that a catastrophic illness or emergency can literally wipe out all previous efforts to budget and save for a rainy day.
My mother was only thirty years old when my father died. She had been enjoying a comfortable life with my college educated father who was a mechanical engineer. She had no reason to believe that she would find herself scurrying just to keep a roof over her head with her three small children but fate intervened and sent all of her plans and dreams crashing down. On the day of my father’s death there was no life insurance policy to tide her over because he had only recently begun a new job. The car he was driving when he crashed was a total loss. There were no funds in what had once been a nice savings account because of the expense of a big move that our family had just made. She had to reclaim her life from ground zero.
Things might have improved financially for my mom save for the fact that she would ultimately be plagued with mental illness. Her bipolar disorder came and went in regular cycles that made it difficult for her to ever get ahead. She literally lived from one paycheck to the next often worrying about what she would do if her car needed repairs for which she had no money. As things broke down in her home she simply learned to live without them. She was rather masterful at budgeting with what she had but living on the edge took its toll on both her physical and mental well being.
The PBS series Frontline recently featured three families in Ohio that were struggling with poverty during the Covid-19 pandemic. All of them shared the common story of having a single parent who for one reason or another had lost her jobs and was having to make ends meet with an average of a thousand dollars a month.
One family lived in a dilapidated looking trailer that they were renting. The mom had done her best to keep it clean and inviting. She had a kidney disease that had caused her to lose her job but she nonetheless found part time work at the Salvation Army where she helped to distribute food to the needy. She had two sons in the eighth grade and a toddler. They were a wonderfully loving family and one of the boys had become a kind of brother parent to his siblings. When the pandemic came and schools shut down this young man juggled watching his younger sister with attempting to do his lessons. When the family car broke down everyone had to walk wherever they needed to go no matter how far away that might be.
They put on a good face but in the quiet of their own minds they were continually worried. The young man did not want his mother to know how sad he was because he believed she had enough on her plate, but he worried that his own anger over the situation might one day erupt and cause trouble. He enlisted the help of a kindly school counselor who would meet him for therapeutic sessions. When one of the boy’s favorite teachers suddenly died he felt overwhelmed but more determined than ever to one day break the cycle of poverty that seemed to have a relentless hold on his life.
One of the families in the film was homeless. They found shelter with friends, moving from place to place as their welcome ran out. the mother had been working until the pandemic hit but had lost her job when the business had to close for a time. She had been unable to find anything and while waiting for unemployment assistance to go into effect she had been evicted from the apartment where they had been living. She had rented a storage facility for the family’s belongings but when no income or relief was forthcoming she had been unable to pay the rental fee and all of the family’s worldly goods were seized. She and her girls went from one place to another with only a suitcase of clothing. They all made the best of things and felt optimistic that their lives would once again turn around. When the mother landed a job as a nail technician they were overjoyed but still worried that they were somehow trapped in an endless cycle from which they might never escape.
The final family lived in a dilapidated house. The mom worked nights at a gas station for minimum wage. The two girls took care of one another while she was gone. They had lived in a state of chronic poverty long before the virus came. The cycle that had been unbroken for generations. The eldest daughter was a senior in high school dreaming of being able to attend college, becoming a teacher, and living happily ever after in a nice neighborhood in the suburbs. She had grown weary of living on the edge and worried intensely about what would become of her little sister who had a number of learning disorders. The crushing weight of want almost felt impossible to overcome.
Each of these families was valiantly attempting to keep it together under dire circumstances. Their situations had been disturbing even before Covid-19 but the changing economic scene had created new almost insurmountable problems for all of them. Such stories are being repeated in a million different ways all across the United States. Those of us who are more secure cannot be indifferent to their needs. We must see them and hear them and attempt to help them in some way. But for the grace of God we might find ourselves dependent upon the kindness of others. We would do well to remember that sometimes poverty is only a few emergencies away.