A year of writing about poverty

Povertyrate By Dave Munger

For nearly a year now, I've been writing here about poverty in America and what it's like to be in my brother's shoes: Like millions of Americans, Mark is a man who has worked hard for most of his life but is now unable to support himself. For a variety of reasons, today's column will be my last for 3QuarksDaily, and I thought I'd use it to sum up what I've learned over the past year.

1. Poor people are just like everyone else. This should be obvious, but for many, it's not: Most poor people want to be productive members of society. They have dreams and aspirations and to the extent that they are able, they are working to achieve them.

2. Poor people are not just like everyone else. This is the less-obvious corollary. Nearly every poor person has suffered enough misfortune to render him or her incapable of earning enough to cover even the basic necessities of life; nearly everyone else has not. In Mark's case, his body simply wasn't suited to the hard, physical jobs he was able to find. Eventually his body gave out, and he was forced to give up his long-established independent lifestyle and ask for help from the government, friends, and family.

3. Poor people are not like other poor people. Some poor people are lazy, some are not. Some poor people are uneducated, some are not. For every stereotype about poor people, there are thousands—millions—of poor people who do not fit that stereotype. But that doesn't mean there aren't some aspects of being poor that impact nearly all poor people. For example,

4. Trouble disproportionately impacts the poor. For most people, an unexpected setback like a car breakdown or an illness is an annoyance, but for the poor, it can unleash a catastrophic cascade of events. If your car breaks down and you have only $200, which you were planning on spending for the electric bill, you may face a choice between living without power or living without a job: If you can't pay to get the car fixed, you can't get to work. Many poor people have no sick leave: Get so sick that you can't work, and you get fired.

5. Getting government aid is hard, dehumanizing work. When Mark finally realized he could no longer support himself, it took years for him to be officially deemed “disabled” and therefore eligible for Federal assistance. Worse, the process almost requires that a person abandon hope: “You have to convince yourself you're disabled,” Mark said at the time. “Your whole life you've been thinking about taking care of yourself [and suddenly] you're no good anymore and you need help.”

The process of justifying your aid doesn't stop once you are place on Social Security Disability. You still need to prove, twice a year, that you need medical coverage, food stamps, and continually demonstrate that you are disabled and unable to work.

I could go on, but one thing I've learned about poor people over the past year is that cataloging their problems doesn't help much.

Two summers ago I stayed near Mark for a month and a half, the idea being I'd take that time to help him rebuild his home after it flooded. The first thing I tried to do to help was just to make a list of all the things he needed. The list soon grew so long that it was almost immediately clear that there was no way I'd be able to “fix” everything.

The very act of making a list was depressing, because it served as a reminder of how bad things really were for Mark. Indeed, that's one of the reasons I won't be writing this column any more, because constantly reminding a poor person of how much they are suffering is, if you'll excuse the expression, a piss-poor way to help.

So how can I help? How can anyone help? I think the key is to start by listening. Make an effort to connect to a poor person, preferably someone you already know or are related to. Just call or visit them every once in a while. If you get along all right, you might make a commitment to a regular visit or call, say once a week. Once you've gotten to know that person, you'll have a better idea of how you can help. But you need to help on their terms. Don't assume “they don't know what's good for them.” They might not want you to help with what seems to you to be the most obvious problem. Maybe that's something they want to do for themselves. Maybe there are deep-seated problems that make it difficult for them to face what are actually symptoms rather than root causes.

But most importantly, you can be an advocate for change. Despite their large numbers, the poor don't have much of a voice in politics. The influence of deep-pocketed donors on politicians is so pervasive that it's taken for granted, as if it would be impossible for anyone to overcome. But politicians do listen to constituents if their numbers are large enough, so when you get a chance, remind your political representatives that they need to represent all the people.

If you need a reminder of some of the issues facing the poor today, you could start by taking a look at my previous columns on 3QD.

November 22, 2010: Portrait of an artist as a middle-aged man
December 20, 2010: Selling a disability
January 17, 2011: Where it hurts
February 14, 2011: Necessary luxury
April 11, 2011: Inflation for you, but not for me
May 9, 2011: Are marathons worth it?
June 6, 2011: Emergency Management
August 1, 2011: The Value of a Dollar

It's been a privilege for me to write this column, but it has also been extremely difficult, both for me, and for my brother Mark, who has had to relive many painful moments in order to give me material. Now I'm going to spend more of my time trying to be a little more constructive with my help, and I hope you will too.