Sunday, June 8, 2008

Poverty of the Soul

I recently got sucked into a debate on poverty.  

One of the things that bothered me about the discussion is what I saw as a complete lack of empathy for people who have made mistakes they can't easily recover from - bringing children into a precarious financial situation, for example, or people who are poor compounding their money troubles by making bad decisions - say, spending money on cigarettes and alcohol vs. putting money away.

On the surface level, the 'take responsibility for yourself' people are correct - it is a bad idea to smoke, for both you and your fellow man, under the best of circumstances, and if you can barely afford to keep a roof over your head, it's making things even worse.

But I think the holier than thou approach to people who have made, or are making bad choices is a bad scene.

I'm not saying that taking responsibility for your actions is a bad thing - quite the contrary, I believe rather strongly in it. But I do think that judging others choices through your own - or my own - lens is a fallacy. And I think it makes people less kind when 'Well I did it' becomes your mantra for other's success.

This isn't about what political party should be in power or whether spending on social programs is correctly allocated.  It isn't about who is right and who is wrong.  It's about a sense I get that our society is losing it's sense of empathy, and how much that bothers me.

I grew up with little.  My first memories are of the housing project where we lived.  Of course, at the age of 3 I had no idea we were poor - the project was full of families just like us - parents with young children.  I know that people were home a lot, but I thought nothing of it.  Through my 3-year-old lens, it was just how it was.  I know now that many of those parents were home because they didn't have jobs, or couldn't afford daycare.  Some of them planned their families anyway, some of them had unplanned pregnancies.  There were many women without visible husbands or partners, on their own.

My paternal Grandmother owned a house, but she was one of the only relatives that did. Almost no one I knew owned a house growing up.  I thought apartments were normal.

When I was 5, we moved to Lynn, Massachusetts.  We lived in what was slowly becoming a 'rough area'.  On our street were a fair amount of families like us, but on the next street over was a fair amount of violence and gang activity.  We didn't go over there.  We were afraid to. 

The first time I became aware money was an issue was when we moved.  My Mom had $5.00 to take to the grocery store.  I don't remember how long it had to last her, or how she spent the bulk of it, but I remember we had macaroni and cheese out of a box that night for dinner.  I thought it was a huge treat.  

As the years went by, and my parents divorced, my standard of living slowly rose.  My mother and her partner rented an apartment in a safer neighborhood.  Then they saved to buy a home - a two family home that they bought with another family we knew.  My father's standard of living remained the same - a compulsive spender, he spent money to make himself feel better, which put him in a cycle of spend, go broke, make money, spend again.  It was a pattern I ultimately repeated.

When I reached adolescence, I had one driving goal - money.  I wanted nice things.  My Moms had moved to an area where we were visibly poorer than the rest of my peer group, and it hurt. I wanted nothing more than to have nice things like the other kids, like a closet full of clothes in the latest styles.  I was poor in comparison to my reference group and I knew it. 

So I got a job at a local grocery store, and I earned.  And spent every dime I earned.  And then some.  I got credit cards and ran them up in order to have nice things.  Of course, I couldn't pay them back.  So I didn't.  It was a bad decision made in desperation.  

Even after wrecking my credit, I still spent.  I was trying so hard to fill the hole in my heart with things - the hole marked 'not as good as everyone else'.  I went to college for a while, but I was better at working, because there was a visible end result - the paycheck.  And I could spend that.  And I could have the things that would make me as good as everyone else.  And I did.

I made really bad decisions.  Lots of them.  For a long time.  

I eventually picked myself up and bailed myself out, but it wasn't without a lot of help.  For one, I found a job with a boss who mentored me, promoted me, and looked out for me.  I had a community of supportive people around me.   I was a fast reader, and I absorbed as much personal finance information as I could. 

I was lucky - I had a ton of breaks.  When I might have drowned, there were people there for me, holding out a hand, and holding me up.  And I was smart enough and resourceful enough to know what to do with the help.  I could apply it.

I look back on myself, now many years later - I look back over the top of my laptop, from over the couch in the gorgeous old colonial we are painstakingly renovating, over my consulting job, over my healthy bank balance, over my adorable and adored husband - I look back,  and I know how lucky, and how blessed I am.  I have a great marriage, a great family, a great job, and I have gifts - intellect, looks, a strong work ethic, creativity - that not everyone has.  People who love you, the ability to work smart, to make connections, to absorb and process information - those are gifts.  And gifts are not distributed equally amongst us.  

I know, I watched so many just go under, or just dog paddle.  The teenage pregnancy that turned into parenthood of a high-need severely disabled child that turned into few job options for the parents which in turn became poverty.  The graduate in a bad job market that took the only job available and struggled to find another.  The retail manager that never quite managed to find a job with a better schedule and wage.   The compulsive spender, or the alcoholic who never could quite get their internal void filled, and the compulsion under control.

Sure, all of them have options.  But in many ways, they are limited by either the things that happened, or their inability to change.  They didn't end up with the same gifts I did.

Those gifts have allowed me to learn how to make something of nothing.  I can make dinner from whatever is lying around.  I can make a beautiful Christmas with little money.  I can make myself into a successful consultant and valued member of society.  I can make connections with the people around me.  

Much of the discussion around poverty and how our resources are allocated is about gifts.  Some of us have many.  Some of us have few.  Those with more sometimes fail to appreciate truly how much our gifts have given us over our lives.  

I think without empathy for those with fewer gifts we create a poverty in our own soul.  We become a harder society, one with less kindness.  We gauge worth by the car that someone drives, and the amount in their bank account.

I believe the cure for this poverty is to recognize ones gifts for what they are.  And recognize that those without the gifts we enjoy are not less than us, just different than us.  What you do with that is up to you, but I might suggest getting to know some poor people.  Go volunteer.  Talk to them.  Spend some time. Find out why they aren't getting ahead.  Offer some of your gifts in the form of suggestions and help  Maybe some money, if donating is what is in your capacity to do.  

You might just find that in return, they have gifts to give you.  


lgsm said...

Very well said. Thank you for your insight.

Anonymous said...

I was introduced to your blog from occasionally posting on the Nest's MM board. I appreciate your post, and I agree with you. I also believe it is easier for some people to blame the individual and question their decisions because then they can sleep better at night. If everyone actually thought about the larger, systemic reasons people are in poverty, it would be overwhelming and highly uncomfortable for them, and they don't want to feel that way.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. I have had so many similar conversations with people and have heard comments that those with little could change if they wanted to. I have never really known what it is like to be poor and therefore have difficulty countering this argument. I might just have to save this post for the next such discussion. I check your blog daily and appreciate your insight and thoughts. Keep up the good work.

bluntmoney said...

I agree with you. People have so many gifts of all types that they just take for granted. Maybe that is part of why there is a lack of empathy: if you take things for granted for yourself, it's that much easier to assume that others have the same gifts and so must just be choosing to "slack" and "take advantage" instead.

Anonymous said...

good post, however, aren't you a little arrogant - letting people know you have "looks?" have any of us even seen a photo of you? not that we want to...

Anonymous said...

Arrogant because she mentioned looks?
Puh-lease! No worries, Ms MoneyPenny. The word arrogant never entered into my mind reading that post.

Ms.Moneypenny said...

Am I arrogant for mentioning looks? No, I don't think so. I debated about adding that line, but I think it's relevant, since there's a lot of research evidence that people that meet my profile (tall, blonde, reasonably well-looking) tend to have an advantage over those who don't.

As for the pictures, they are coming, along with a new blog design which my husband has been diligently working on with me.