The overall poverty rate in 2011 remained at a record level – 15 percent of the American population at or below the annual income of $23,021 for a family of four, new data from the US Census shows. It was statistically unchanged from the 15.1 percent in the previous year. Blogger Lisa Suhay comments on how families in that 15 percent cope, and a bi-product for her kids is compassion.
I just spent several exhausting, sweaty days helping friends divest themselves of a huge chunk of their worldly goods. They were moving into a small condo across town, having hit a crater in the financial road and been forced out of their rental house.
I saw the excited avarice in the eyes of my sons as they were gifted with DVDs, books, and clothing. And I had to take the time to help them understand that these gifts came from someone’s misfortune and the price of those things was compassion for those in dire straits.
After the talk, I didn’t have to ask my sons to toil in the dead heat (the electricity in the neighbor’s house was shut off so there was no air conditioning) with us as we packed, sorted, and loaded vehicles bound for various places like Hope House Thrift Store and The Park Place Clothes Closet. They could have given all of their belongings to friends, put things on consignment or eBay; instead, the family chose to let others benefit from their loss.
"I think it's easier to part with some of these things if I know someone will really love them like we did," my friend said. "It helps to know they're going to good use."
It's interesting how unforgiving society has become about people who lose their homes, businesses or can't pay for something. It reminds me a bit of when children learn to play chess. As soon as a beginner slips up and moves a piece wrong, the opponent is almost sure to shout, "You can't make that move! He's a cheater!"
I always have to stop the action and explain that sometimes people make errors, but that doesn't mean they did it to make us unhappy or to cheat us.
My choice to be a freelancer so I could stay home five years ago when our youngest, now eight, was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Aspergers Syndrome came back to slay us financially as the economy withered.
Last month we had one terribly rough week that left me counting my pennies at the supermarket. I came up short and had to ask the cashier to remove an item from my purchase. Two women behind me were annoyed that I was holding them up. "Just put it on your card," one said, exasperated. "You'll just have to come back for it later." The other woman muttered, "Jerk."
I had my 8-year-old with me, learning on the front lines, and had to turn to them and clarify that I simply didn't have a penny beyond what was in my purse, and we would not be coming back for the ice pops I had thought we could afford that day. I apologized and blinked back a big old flood of tears.
The women were unmoved. "Well, next time learn to count before you hold everyone up!"
Being humbled is a huge advantage in life because it opens your eyes and shuts your mouth. You really can't experience that kind of thing week in and week out, that kind of gutting, and not stand by a neighbor who is in financial disgrace and distress.
Before sinking to the no-ice-pop level, I might have tended to avoid people in financial trouble because it's just too scary. Fear tends to hide our social skills. When it's a neighbor, it's literally too close to home.
Very few neighbors helped; only a few even spoke about those moving. Part of that may have been an effort to be polite, but mostly it reminded me of the Shirley Temple film "The Little Princess" where the child goes from rich and adored to impoverished and shunned when her military father is reported missing in action and her bills go unpaid. She was still the same child, only now she was scorned, an outsider, perhaps carrying the disease of poverty.
The writer Douglas Adams would have called it a case of a "somebody else's problem" field. In his books, when something that is just too strange or frightening appears, people automatically don't see it because their brains protect them.
Having experienced joblessness, a brush with foreclosure and making pasta into an ongoing food adventure, I should probably be one of the main somebody-else's-problem-field generators, but I have always been pretty socially backward about most things. I am a journalist. We run toward fire and explosions, dodging all the sane people who are trampling us trying to head the other way.
You might even say I see life through everybody's-problem glasses.
When you run toward problems, you get the chance to report back what you saw. Hence I am here to tell you that in the end, my friends survived the social apocalypse.
They are good people, and they, like our nation, will rise again, stronger, better and even more giving for having been humbled, hurt, and doubted.
Until then, while we may not be comfortable running to help, perhaps at least we can steel ourselves not to walk away from our neighbors when they need us.