Several years ago, when I began studying poverty, I asked Sister Pat Lamb of Saint Francis De Sales Church to lunch. I had taken a 30-week JustFaith course on social justice issues from her. I knew a little of her back story. She had been an elementary school principal when the religious and lay people were being killed by death squads in El Salvador. It was intolerable for her to be comfortable while others were dying. She left education to work in social justice. Sister Pat was compassionate but didn’t tolerate anyone trying to work the system. Authentic, I often referred to her as “the real deal.”
I remember four things she told me over lunch that gave me a start on my research.
1. “How long might it take a family to move out of poverty?” I asked. The pause following my question would be the longest of that day. “Fifteen years,” was her reply. If there were any illusions I held about quick fixes, they were gone by hearing just two words. Poverty is a complicated subject. Part of the solution to poverty is the transformation of governmental support, but gridlock stifles transformation. With multiple factors affecting a family, it can take years to get an education, find subsistence employment and affordable housing, land a job with a decent wage, use reliable public transportation, obtain child care and health care, and develop an emergency fund. That said, some families move into and out of poverty in less than a year. While the number living in poverty is relatively stable, 43,000,000, who those exact people are is dynamic.
2. Sister Pat recommended that I begin by reading Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. At a lavish lunch, she and her editor began to ponder how people make it on the wages of unskilled workers. In an era of cold aggression against those at the bottom, “How, in particular, we wondered, were the roughly four million women about to be booted into the labor market going to make it on $6 or $7 and hour?” Ehrenreich walks out of her comfortable life and into poverty by taking low-income jobs, trying to find affordable housing and learning about the lives of her fellow low-wage workers. In her summary, Ehrenreich underscores America’s unique position of neglecting to do for the poor what other developed nations have done and that, “we should decide, as a bare minimum principle, to stop kicking people when they are down.”
3. We are prone to take our family legacy for granted. We grow up with parents coaching us on how to be successful and teaching us skills along the way. Chronically poor families have little to work with or to pass on to the next generation. Sister Pat shared a story about helping a family get settled in an apartment. When a chest of drawers was brought in the family asked what the piece was for. No one knew how to fold clothes and then place them into the chest of drawers.
4. “I suppose you should visit the tent cities,” was another comment. There were three I could visit, but I should take with me someone from law enforcement. The three locations were behind the Pilgrim Home Cemetery, down the railroad tracks near there and behind D&W Food Market off of Lakewood Boulevard. While living a comfortable life, I don’t see poverty and I certainly don’t see the deep poverty that some people experience. How can I become concerned about radical inequality if I’m not even aware of it?
I came away from this interview thinking:
1. We must commit for the long-term to end poverty
2. U.S. leadership is unique in its ambivalence toward its own people
3. Moving out of poverty often requires obtaining skills and knowledge
4. Many factors must align in order for a family to move out of poverty
5. We must become capable of seeing poverty and allow what we see to transform us
6. Against the stark realities described, every day families move out of poverty