This place matters

This place matters

Friday, October 19, 2012

Sociology of poverty

Granted, I'm not an expert on this subject. I dropped out of school before I could finish my Sociology of Poverty class. It wasn't entirely because we had to create a grocery list for people living below the poverty line and it turned out I had a lower food budget than the members of the family in my assignment. But that was certainly a factor.
Anyway, people always want to know why the poor don't just pick themselves up and get out of the ghetto. Go to school, apply themselves and work hard and get a better life. They don't realize that poverty is like quicksand. You try to kick and thrash your way out of quicksand and you only end up sinking deeper, and while it's not impossible to find a vine and drag yourself out, it's not exactly child's play either.
When you're poor, you're so weighed down by your own baggage that you can't remember what it was like to live without debt, if you ever did. If you can cover all your bills for the month, that's a red-letter month. 
I was born to relative privilege and the fact that my parents both had college degrees raised my odds of going to college myself considerably. Yet at 24 I found myself living next door to a drug dealer (or possibly someone with a lot of sketchy looking friends who liked to visit for five minutes at a time), fending off the nutter who accosted me for money every other night, and getting myself on a first name basis with the bill collectors. It was a brief encounter with something only akin to poverty, but it was enough. I had a college degree, a great resume, and I was a damn good worker, but there just weren't jobs. There weren't jobs in my field, there weren't jobs in anything tangentially related to my field. What jobs I did apply to always told me how great my cover letter looked, how impressive my resume was, how they'd call me back. It was a couple years before someone finally did.
I remember sobbing as bill collectors berated me, telling me I was lazy and a liar. I remember what it was like to have debilitating mental and physical health problems and being unable to afford to treat them. I remember the clumps of hair that fell out every time I showered, the result of stress at whatever low-pay, hellish job I was working.
You can only get called names by a bill collector, berated by your boss, and scorned by the upper crust so long before you start to believe they're as worthless as they say you are. I had a support system. We had families who loved and believed in us. Who bought us groceries without our having to ask and who promised we weren't horrible people. Not everybody has that.
The ghetto is like quicksand. Skill game parlors and cash til payday loan places spring up through cracks in the cement and lottery ads glow on every billboard. TV commercials promise debt relief, great rates on furniture rental, get rich quick schemes; all of which serve only to dig you deeper into debt.
That technical school they advertise on TV has so many hidden fees that you're bankrupt before the semester's out. If you manage to finish, you go out on your first interview and find that fancy degree's worth less than the paper it's printed on.
The corner grocery store charges twice what the nice one in the suburbs does, but you've got no way to get there, or no time. Every payday, scammers and snake oil salesman crawl out of the woodwork and promise an end to all your troubles. You get burned once or twice, you get swindled for what little you got and you learn not to trust anybody who offers you a better life.
You put your head down and you give up trying and you're sure there's no hope. So you go to work. You clean out the grease traps. You ignore your health problems and you beg for overtime. You try to raise your kids for something better, but you don't even know what that something better looks like.
Sometimes, through some magical combination of aptitude, luck, self-esteem, and hard work, somebody gets out, and that's great for them. They deserve their success. But not everybody has that magic combination. Not everybody finds a way. It's not because they're dumb or lazy or bad or dishonest, it's because everything around them is set up to help them fail, and breaking free is more than just a matter of will.


Anonymous said...

I grew up very very poor. I have done fairly well for myself and want better for my kids as we all do. Because of how I was raised, I feel I have more empathy than a lot of people. I am always willing to help anyone. We living in a decent neighborhood, there is a family accross the street though that is totally "ghetto". They ride their bike up and down the street, hollering, fighting, cops always in and out. Noboday works...we can guess at how they get there money. Along comes this 12 year old boy who wants to spend time at my house. So we let him. My boys, at the time, we only 6 and 8, but I can assume that my house was a great relief for this boy. No fighting, quite, fun. He had meals with us, went to dinner and movies with us, even spent the night. One day he came by complaining about headaches. While he was jumping on the trampoline I notices his shoes were smaller than my 8 year olds! I asked him if his shoes fit, he said No but that was all he had. Well, I figured out where his headaches were coming from! I just couldnt live with that. So we loaded up and went to the store. A few hours and a few stores later, he had a new pair of Jordons he was just tickled with.

We ended up seeing less and less of him. He got in more and more trouble. Even though with us he talked of college and ROTC programs and joining track, he still had to go home every night. Not long after that he was arrested, then he was arrested again. Last I knew he was spending 2 years in Juvie. This boy is only 15 now. And unfortunately he will most likely be in and out of prision his whole life.

The point, you are right. It's quick sand. No matter how many ropes we threw him we could only pull him so far out before his home life sucked him right back in.

It's so sad and makes you wonder HOW on earth you are supposed to hellp.

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