Today is the day I am supposed to write a blog about poverty. I can get down to it now, since just yesterday I finally finished getting all my taxes done. 2005, 2006, 2007. I had gotten behind in 1991 when Richard went to Desert Storm, and this is the first time I have finally gotten caught up. So now I can think about poverty while I wait for my $7,364 refund to be deposited electronically in my bank account.
I remember poverty. My parents talked about it when they mentioned the Great Depression. My Dad had been in the 3 C’s, as he called it, after he dropped out of school in the ninth grade to help support his family. The Civilian Conservation Corps, one of Roosevelt’s Great Answers. It saved a lot of people, and my father was one. I guess then that I am a descendant of poverty.
My mother’s family was of a different socioeconomic background. Educated. All teachers and stuff. So my grandfather was a circuit riding preacher, and in the depression the donations dried up. My grandmother was left to forage in the woods for food. She knew everything there that could be eaten. But they had a cow and some chickens. They sold butter and eggs and milk. They made out okay.
My own experience with poverty as a child was limited. We were working class people. My father was a letter carrier with job security. We had an oil heater in the dining room, so we were warm. (That was the only room in the house that had heat. I slept upstairs in a cold room with 4 or 5 inches of homemade quilts on top of me to keep me warm.) I had five dresses for school, one for each day.
I think of my children’s experience with poverty. We have always been middle class, even when I separated from their father and couldn’t afford to heat the house because I had to pay the mortgage. Their memory of it is that it was fun, my picking them up from school and going to Shoney’s to eat dinner (kids were free) and do their homework, and then jump into the tub together because the hot water would only last for one bath, and then we all ran together and jumped in one bed. Fun. Four years of fun. Oh yeah.
My husband Richard’s shop teacher had been through the Great Depression and advised him against poverty: “Get a trade and you’ll be able to get a job. Get two trades, and if you lose your job you can get another one. Get three and you’ll never be out of work.” He did that, and it has been true. He has more job security than anyone I know. He can do carpentry, plumbing, electrical, HVAC, design, construction, engineering, anything. Where will we find guys like that in the next generation? The people who don’t know about the Great Depression. Who don’t know to avoid being poor.
Well, so I guess I thought I had a little experience with being poor. Then I went to San Diego with a girlfriend in 1992 and we decided to take a bus down Baja to Encinada and points beyond. We didn’t know there was a big difference between the buses the tourists took and the ones the locals took, and we ended up on a local “chicken bus.” It even went on different roads. Down roads from which the definition of “dust” was derived. With thousands of little shacks up and down every hill, with foottrails going steeply up between dwellings made of cardboard, car doors, road signs, and any other flotsam and jetsom of the road from which they had been harvested. It wasn’t safe to drink the water, of course, so we had to bring a big bottle of water, which I guess was my first time for that.
It was an awakening for me. They didn’t have blogs back then, but I wrote a little thing about it and published it as a letter to the editor. It ended with “and Sylvia used the rest of her Evian to wash her hair.” Such a difference between us and the really really poor.
By now I have been on five mission trips: The Dominican Republic, Madagascar, Cuba, and twice to India. I have seen those hills covered with shacks in many places. The poor will always be with us. There are people, I have discovered, who would think they were rich to have such a shack. I have met many people who only have two outfits. Each a simple piece of cloth.
In my first trip to India, we were invited to the home of one of the richest and most honored people in one of our villages. She was Kumari, a businesswoman, well-to-do and much respected. When we went to her home, a simple one-room grass dwelling, she offered us a Coke from her store, a small humble construction about the size of two phone booths. She had refrigeration. Probably nobody else in the whole village had refrigeration. The Cokes were cold. We were humbled. We sat in the shade on assorted plastic chairs in the 20’ by 20’ dirt yard and gratefully enjoyed our beverage. It could have been the nectar of the gods. We figured out later that those plastic chairs belonged to many people from the village. They had been gathered together to accommodate us.
Some of my ancestors had been potato farmers from Ireland. They lived in holes they dug out of the hills. When the potato blight came, they starved. The ones who were lucky came to America on ships. A lot of them died. Some of my other ancestors were Choctaw Indians. When the U.S. Government computed the poverty index sometime back, they said it was anything below two-thousand-something for a family of four. At that time, the average income for a Choctaw family was less than $700 a year. And it was for way more than four people. The Choctaws were very poor people. But they were one of the five civilized tribes. (That means they didn’t fight back.) So back in the eighteen-hundreds, when the Irish were starving, the Choctaws sent them some money! A hundred dollars or so. An enormous amount of money at the time. I have a painting on my wall that commemorates this. The Irish hired a Choctaw to paint it, for their anniversary. The poor, honoring the poor.
We really know nothing about poverty, except by our history. America is the country that has risen above poverty. That is our heritage. That should be our legacy. We should never allow people to live in tents in America. If rich folks want to know what to do with their billions, they can go to Mexico or India, yes. The people need them there. But the people need them here, too. We have people living in tents, the American equivalent of shacks on the hillside. We should be ashamed.