Being Poor

There’s something quite interesting (and, in a lot of ways, very disturbing) about being poor in this country. There exists a contingent who (though they would never admit it in public) will never be satisfied that the “poverty problem” is real and important until the homeless are starving in droves. There is another contingent who are altogether certain that the poor are just making things harder for themselves, because “my father supported a family of four on a blue-collar wage,” and “have you tried not spending so much extra money?” and “why do you need luxuries like television and new clothes anyway?” These groups dominate the public discourse concerning poverty, and they simply don’t do it justice. I should know: I’ve lived it.

My family is poor. The term “dirt poor” comes to mind, but when you get right down to it, that’s part of the problem — being poor inevitably involves, at its heart, a loss of basic human dignity. Whether this loss occurs when one is forced to accept charity to feed and clothe one’s family, or faced with the crushing reality of being unable to pursue one’s dreams, or even when one experiences the simple indignity of having to ask strangers for change to ride the bus, poverty does not simply manifest itself as a lack of the finer things in life. It is not simply an absence. Poverty is a constantly-felt malign force in my life and the lives of so many others.

I can’t quite bring myself to be grateful for my background, but there are times when I come close — and this, I think, is what is really important about the story I’m telling. I have an experience with poverty that mirrors that of many, many others, but it seems that all too often someone from a background like mine makes good, strikes it rich, escapes from this pit, and then never comes back to help others in their climb. I won’t do that, and, to be honest, I’m not sure I can. My experience with poverty — my parents living outside of town, me living with my jobless uncle and my jobless brother, my friends constantly struggling to find jobs — has left me with something akin to hatred for those who survive poverty and, knowing just how terrible it truly is, force those left behind to fend for themselves.

This, then, is what I’ve taken from poverty: purpose. I suppose that this is in itself an achievement, to have taken something so vital from that which has so little to give. In plainer terms, my purpose is this: I want to come back for those who, like me, are trapped in poverty. I intend to go to university, get my degree, and use it to make something capable of providing for those who cannot provide for themselves: a non-profit organization free of the corruption that so dominates the powerful governmental organizations that might otherwise alleviate the plight of those in poverty.

I recognize that this is hardly a new response to the problems of poverty, and I further recognize that even if it were an innovative and new plan, a single non-governmental organization could never be expected to end poverty, or even seriously reduce it, in so large a country. By the same token, though, the tourniquet is no new solution to the problem of snakebites, and it cannot by itself prevent death from the poison in one’s blood. But what a tourniquet can do, and what I intend to do in my non-profit organization, is provide time. Until this country’s leadership is ready to seriously tackle the problems of homelessness, unemployment, and poverty, organizations like mine will be desperately needed. Being poor has taught me one thing, and one thing only: poverty must be ended. We must look out for each other. We cannot stand idly by and wait for our problems to go away.