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Friday, January 29, 2016

A Year of Studying Poverty

For many years now, I have wanted to write about poverty. I have purchased books that sit laughing on my shelves, unread, and I have delved into homelessness and the worst poverty - refugees, thanks to the Internet. I am encouraged in my efforts by something my mother said thirty years ago. “Poverty is the worst thing that can happen to children.” She said this because she knew what grinding poverty was. She lived on a farm during the Great Depression and her father was a Swedish Covenant minister. They ate what they raised or were given and, since ministers relied on God’s grace for income, there was no money for ice cream or even gas for the car. My mother remembers her father bundling up her mother’s sterling silver and selling it for a nickel.

The first post I will make will be of my own personal experiences with poverty, both mine and others. I’d like to share just a bit of what I learn over this year in the hopes that I will have something meaningful to say. I hope that I can find ways for all of you to do whatever you can to eliminate poverty, however insignificant your actions. Believe me, nothing you will do will be insignificant.

My family’s poverty begins in Sweden, where one of my ancestors was living on a bowl of soup a day and decided to come to the United States. She was eighteen and brought her one-year-old infant with her. That’s not very good genealogy, but it is a starting point, a place to jump off. I can’t imagine moving to another country with no hope of returning to home, but she survived. I think that is what poverty is to me, survival. We can survive under the most horrendous of circumstances, but what does it do to our psyche?

We know that lack of stimulation in early childhood leads to delays in language development, fine and gross motor development, and social-emotional development. Without an enrichment program to overcome these delays, they can become crippling and permanent. As a retired Early Childhood Special Educator, I notice people in interviews on the news whose vocabulary is severely limited; lots of uhs, ers, and “things.” There is a speech disability called word-finding but that is not the same. Children who have never been to the zoo won’t know an opossum from a raccoon. Children who have never ridden on a train cannot picture the conductor taking tickets. Books help bridge this gap, but poverty impairs the parents’ ability to have books in the home. Even a bus ride can be an expense to a low-income family and can impair the ability to use the library. Parents may be working two jobs, children maybe told to stay inside and watch TV after school, pets are too expensive. Even the basic health of the young child is impaired if they don’t get proper food and exercise.

My Swedish ancestor, my mother, and my children and I have experienced poverty. When I separated from my children’s father and moved away, I was not able to secure a full-time job for six months. I was substitute teaching, earning less than my monthly rent, and our refrigerator was very empty. My sons got home at 2:30 and 3:30 and my daughter was in kindergarten. If my parents hadn’t helped me out, I don’t know what I would have done. Our first Christmas tree cost $10, shed most of its needles before it was in the stand, and leaned to one side. I purchased clothing gifts from the outlet store for a pittance (what girl doesn’t need a bikini in December?) and I don’t remember much else. I had gotten us into income-based counseling, though, and we started a new custom that was free: turning off the lights and singing Christmas carols around the tree. My parents were there when the kids were sick so I didn’t have to miss work. When I secured a job for a teacher on medical leave in January of that year, we began to get back on our feet. I don’t ever want to go through that again. I was not given tenure for three years, and I feared losing the children and living on the street for years afterwards.

There is poverty in this country. There is poverty in this world. I hope to begin an examination of poverty that will lead to a lessening of that poverty wherever it exists. Some say Matthew 26:11 means that we have to accept the fact that there always will be poverty. I do not. I do not say that. I do not accept that. Let’s seek an understanding together. Please comment as you see fit.