When you talk about poverty, you’re talking about people.

Why is it that when politicians start talking about poverty, they stop talking about people?  Even the good guys, the progressives who want to end poverty, are prone to this. 

When you talk about poverty, you’re talking about people, even if you’re more comfortable hiding behind statistics oversimplified moral proclamations and judgments.  You’re talking about me, so let me tell you about me.

I’m 27 years old, and I’m disabled due to severe, chronic mental and physical illness.  I’m not stupid or lazy or morally lacking.  I would love to get a job.  I’d love to finish my undergraduate degree and go to law school.  Ever since I was a kid and realized I could get paid to fight with people, I’ve wanted to be a lawyer–but I’m not above working less professional jobs to get there.  I’ve worked in a fast food restaurant, a hotel, and a hands-on science museum.  I’ve worked as a nanny and tutor for kids with developmental disabilities.  I’ve volunteered coaching Special Olympics teams, doing home repairs for low-income seniors, working in an alternative juvenile justice program, and teaching creative writing to second-graders.  For the last two years, as I’ve been able, I’ve been working on a number of political campaigns and with issues advocacy groups.  I’m not opposed to hard work, and I’m not bumming off the welfare system.  I’m just too busy fighting my nervous system and my immune system to be able to work right now.

As a result, I’m completely dependent on SSI and SSDI to survive.  I am allotted $740 per month, which comes out to $8,880 per year.  For comparison purposes, the 2014 poverty line for a household of one is $11,670 per year.  I share a one-bedroom apartment with two other people, and that costs me $400 a month.  During the winter, our heating costs–we have a pellet stove and oil heat–often top $100 per month.  I can’t afford a car, but public transit where I live is severely underfunded.  I have to take at least two buses each way just to go grocery shopping, and it’s 3 buses and a half-mile walk to my doctor’s office.  My regional transit authority offers reduced fares only for people with mobility impairments, not other disabilities, so I have to pay full fare for these trips.  There’s a food bank in town, but it’s not on a bus line, so I can only go there when I can find somebody to give me a ride.  I get a little over $200 per month in food stamps, but my illness requires a very restrictive diet, and it’s more expensive than the average diet.  By the third week of the month, I’m usually down to eating rice and peanut butter because that’s all I can afford that doesn’t make me sick.  Sometimes, I even run out of that.  I have medical expenses that aren’t covered by my insurance, and many of those bills have gone to collections because there’s just no money.  I alternate paying my phone bill or my electric bill each month.

And now Social Security has decided that they over-paid me last year.  See, on disability, you’re not allowed to have more than $2000 saved, but that’s laughable because I’ve never been able to save anything since I became disabled.  But the SSA has decided I have $1500 in a secret bank account.  The bank tells me that the account number the case worker provided me with doesn’t exist, and I have given her documentation attesting to this.  But now they’re going to take $75 a month out of my checks each month until the alleged overpayment is repaid.  Yes, you heard that right: I’m being penalized for money I don’t own and my bank says doesn’t exist.

But when politicians talk about poverty, this isn’t what they talk about.  They don’t talk about the utter hopelessness of a system that traps you in poverty and penalizes you for imaginary errors.  They don’t talk about what it’s like to ration grains of rice so that maybe you won’t be quite so hungry at the end of the month.  They don’t talk about what it’s like for it to be 5 degrees outside, but you don’t have heat or hot water because you can’t afford to buy more oil until next month.

Occasionally somebody mentions child hunger or homeless families–everyone feels sorry for kids because they didn’t do anything to deserve to live in poverty (yet).  But the implication is that if you’re an adult who’s impoverished or hungry, it’s your own fault; you deserve it.  I mean, you should just go get a job.  It’s not that hard.  Pull yourself up by your bootstraps or starve to death quietly.

(This post brought to your by the letter P and a very frustrating online town hall by a candidate who calls himself a bold, progressive leader but only talks about CHILD poverty and hunger and has staffers who won’t give him questions about why we shouldn’t talk about ending poverty, hunger, and homelessness for EVERYBODY.)

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27 Comments

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27 responses to “When you talk about poverty, you’re talking about people.

  1. Thank you for sharing this powerful story, Hope, and for describing the human costs of a violent system that threatens people’s lives as it robs them of their right to be treated with understanding, respect, and compassion. With your permission, I would like to share your story with my social work colleagues and students. It is one of the clearest and most moving personal accounts I have read. I hope you share this with legislators and as an editorial in the media.

    (The only idea I can come up with at the moment is to suggest that you contact your local Aging and Disability Center — at least in the past, they had benefit specialists whose job was to help people with the type of situation you described. I wish I could do more.)

    • Yes, feel free to share it; there’s also a follow-up rant now because I apparently have lots of opinions that everyone should hear. (Slight sarcasm. It’s 2:00 AM, I’m sleep deprived, and I’m a little wacky. I get this weird high when I go all ranty.)

      I’d be interested to hear what responses you get to it. I know I used to have a very different idea of poverty and poor people. I have a weird perspective now–I grew up with solidly middle class family; my parents were a cop and a teacher. We weren’t rich, but we weren’t worrying where the next meal would come from. My grandfather, however, is the VP of investments at a major brokerage firm (you’d know it if I mentioned the name, but I prefer to maintain my anonymity), so I also grew up around money and solidly upper-class folks. My family is also conservative, so I grew up absorbing the attitude that poor people were that way because they chose to be, that anyone could get a job and support themselves if they wanted to, and that poverty wasn’t a big problem. I didn’t really know any poor people, so I wasn’t exposed to anything that would challenge those views.

      Now, as an adult who’s actually poor, I see how hard it is. I no longer see poor people as inferior–less motivated, less intelligent, less hardworking–than middle- or upper-class people. I know that poverty is a huge problem, but it’s easy to marginalize us.

      I haven’t shared my story with legislators or the media, and most of that is due to guilt and shame that I’ve internalized. I feel like it’s a private matter that I should keep to myself and not bother important people with. Although I would never project those beliefs onto another poor person, I’m still ashamed of my situation and my inability to pull myself out of it by my bootstraps and the skin of my teeth. I believe everyone deserves help except me.

      Even my local-ish disability law center (there’s not much that’s truly local to me) said there’s nothing they could do to help me. What I’ve got in terms of benefits is the best-case scenario. The only way I’ll get more help is if the government (on all levels) provides greater benefits for people like me. And I’m in a pretty progressive state–elsewhere, I would be dead. The state I grew up in is one where they’ve refused the Medicaid expansion, and I wouldn’t be able to afford to buy insurance. The medications I need to control my illness would cost around $9000 a month. I’m very thankful that I live in a state that does guarantee healthcare to everyone. It’s hard to survive here, but in some other states, it would be impossible.

      However, these issues are a big part of why I work on campaigns. I’m a disability delegate to my state’s Democratic convention, which means I get to vote on candidates for all the contested offices–governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and treasurer–which determines who will make it onto the ballot for the primary. Suddenly, people want to hear from me. People from these campaigns call me up and ask me what issues I care about. Sometimes I even get to talk to candidates. I get invited to house parties and town halls. It’s kind of revolutionary after a life where no one’s even cared that I exist. People not only care what I say, but they actually call me up and ask me for my opinion! It’s pretty damn cool. I have a much bigger voice in important conversations than I’ve ever had before. I’m not trying to yell over the roar of the ocean.

      Interesting vignette: a week or two ago, I got a call from the campaign of one of the lieutenant governor candidates. The phonebanker asked me what the most important issue to me was in this election, and I said poverty. His response, rather bewildered: “We don’t have an option here for poverty. I guess I can put it under ‘jobs and economy.'” All the Democratic campaigns use the same system for data management and phonebanking (VAN/Votebuilder), so I logged into our system and checked. Sure enough, poverty isn’t an option in our little drop-down menu, nor is disability. “Jobs and economy” isn’t the same as poverty; poverty is a much broader issue, but our system is configured so that we can’t even mark down that it’s a vital issue. That’s broken in so many ways.

      Sorry, I keep ranting tonight. Sometimes I just get like this and I don’t shut up.

      • Thank you for sharing more of your experiences and insights about poverty, Hope.

        Poverty is not the fault of individuals, it’s a predictable outcome in societies that are based on capitalism and inequality. Mark Rank (2005, One Nation Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All) uses the metaphor of “musical chairs” to describe the system — there are never enough jobs to employ all of the people who want and need to work. When the economy is booming, there are more jobs (chairs) so people who are normally the last hired are more likely to find jobs; in times like these, employers can be more picky, and because there are few “chairs,” employers can lower wages and increase responsibilities very easily and play the unemployed populations against each other to “divide and conquer.” And now, they can do this on a global level.

        Poverty should be viewed as the shame of the nation, not of individuals who are excluded from a game stacked in favor of those who benefit from a rigged system. Unfortunately, we have been socialized to accept the Elizabethan views of poverty imported to the New world from England at the beginning of the 1600s. (my rant for the morning 🙂 )

      • I agree, Carol. I also see poverty as a societal problem, not a personal moral failure. As for Elizabethans, I actually wrote another post/rant last night blaming common attitudes toward poverty/poor people on Puritan doctrines that have now been adopted by conservative, evangelical Christians, who are a major power in the Republican party. So we are in agreement there, too.

  2. happilydpressed

    I always love reading your posts. They’re full of passion for what you’re writing- good and bad. It’s like getting to know you.

    I’m sorry. And what im sorry for is life.

    In the past few weeks I’ve learned that there are certain things we can do to better ourselves, but in the end were all predestined to live a certain life and obtain this unobtainable reason for existence. And right when we get it- we die. So there’s no winning. No losing. Just life. Life that sucks people dry of whatever spirit they have left. And life that forces people to fight each other.

    I hope somewhere down the road, things get brighter for you. And I’m not just saying that. People- you- they don’t deserve half the shit life throws at them. But here we all are. Living in a stupid hell that we all think is life. But were just breathing and going along with the motions.

    Nothing out government does makes sense.

    • I just spent the last 45 minutes writing an impassioned response, and then I realized it was obnoxiously long for a comment. So now it’s a post. But the gist of it is that I don’t believe we’re predestined to suffer; I believe that I’m suffering (at least as far as poverty is concerned) because some people are assholes, and they made a lot of the rules about running the country. But we can change things. It takes a long-ass time and a lot of energy, and it sucks in the meantime, but we’re not entirely helpless even if we’re suffering because people with much more power than us are being assholes.

      • happilydpressed

        And that’s why you’re Hope (:

      • happilydpressed

        All this made me laugh today. My school is making me pay for the week I went in spring before I took a medical leave and my financial aid won’t even cover it. They said they would and now they’re not and if I don’t do it, my reregistration falls through

      • Ugh, that sucks. When I was in college and had to do a medical withdrawal, they tried to charge me for the whole semester. Does your school have a disability office or coordinator? If not, or if they’re not helpful, look for a disability law center. They should be able to help you.

      • happilydpressed

        It’s the financial aid office and they don’t care…everything is paperwork. Like you said people don’t care. They don’t realize what’s behind the money

      • Yeah, but the disability office may help you deal with the financial aid assholes. If not them, the folks at a disability law center can advocate for you. Sometimes just involving those folks and citing the ADA is enough to make the school stop being discriminatory assholes.

      • happilydpressed

        Honestly I’m so drugged right now I just want to sleep lol I started new sedatives and I don’t want to fight

      • happilydpressed

        Thanks hope (:

  3. bginbama

    Hope – thank you for sharing your story. You describe in such a clear and compelling manner many of the deep seated issues that plague our system’s ability to enhance people’s lives. With your permission, I would to re-blog your post. Sincerely, bginbama

    • Sure, feel free to reblog. I think these are issues that more people should be aware of.

      By the way, I was raised in Bama. Nice to see a fellow Alabamian in the blogosphere.

  4. What a devastating situation and how amazing you are to work so hard for the common good when you are going through so much. I know you can appeal the Social Security decision but I also know that people can wait months, even a year, to be heard, and I have no idea what you are supposed to do in the meantime. Is there any rep on the federal level whose office you can contact for constituent service–especially someone who might know you through your political activity? Your observation that “poverty” is missing from polls and dropdown menus is too telling. The War on Poverty being one more war we have walked away from, pretending that we won it or that it never happened. USA, Number One. You’re so right. All the political rhetoric is about saving the middle class. Well, damn it, if the middle class is disappearing, where are the people going? Into poverty! The issue is poverty!!!!

    • I filed an appeal about the imaginary bank account with the imaginary $1500, but they’re taking the money out of my checks anyway. There’s apparently just nothing I can do about that. Even my congressmen can’t change the Social Security rules, at least not in time to fix my situation. Especially not with a Republican House who’ve made it clear they’ll block any progressive change.

      Yes, the middle class is an endangered species, and the poor are largely marginalized in conversations about them. Even progressive legislators miss the mark. My Representative, like a number of other Democratic legislators, spent one night in a homeless shelter and a week on a food stamps budget. It’s great that he’s trying to understand our situation, but you don’t experience the true desperation when you know you have a secure home to go to and enough money to buy more food if you’re hungry on the food stamps rations. We don’t have those things to fall back on.

  5. This made me cry. Hope I am sorry. As your friend, I wish I could do something. Unfortunately I too am on that poverty line. So I know all too well what your talking about. This week for example I havent been able to pay my phone or electric bills, cuz I had vet bills. And I love my dog so he came first. I do hope that things will improve for you some day. And for me us too. XXX

  6. This may have been a rant, but looking through the comments, it appears as if your words will be spread. I am also on SSDI and, while I make more than you do, I’m still scraping by. I am very fortunate to live close-by to a town that has excellent MH services, a great therapist, and a very progressive and knowledgeable pdoc. I read your posts about your lack of access to care, and I think that is what bothers me the most. Yes, poverty is the main issue, but the lack of decent, well-funded care is such a major issue in so many states, it’s unbelievable. Good for you for speaking up.

    And as a side note, what REALLY gets me about the US’s attitude toward poverty and hunger, is that they’re always looking overseas to make a difference. It’s like, HELLO, the problem is right effing next door to you!

    And that’s my mini-rant. I’ll go check out your next so-called “rant” here in a few. 😀

    • I live in Massachusetts, which is known as a progressive state. First to have marriage equality/successfully challenge DOMA, the model for Obamacare, and so forth. But I live in western Massachusetts. It’s lovely and beautiful, and my area is known for super-progressive politics (Progressive Democrats of America started here)…but we’re also less economically developed than the eastern part of the state, and the population is more sparse. There are fewer hospitals, doctors, therapists, and mental health programs. The public transit system leaves MUCH to be desired, which makes it harder for people without cars to access what resources we do have here. Offices for government programs essential to poor people like Social Security and the Department of Transitional Assistance (SNAP, TANF, etc.), are several cities away, which requires multiple bus transfers and sometimes long walks. That makes it difficult for many disabled folks to access these services. Theoretically most of this stuff can be done via mail and telephone, but if you’ve ever tried to call Social Security, you know what a joke that is. My case worker for SNAP benefits is on vacation every time I call. The only way to get things done is to go in person, but that’s often impossible. Things are much easier and more accessible if you live in the eastern part of the state.

      I agree that poverty is a huge issue right here, but I’m not opposed to foreign aid. When pollsters ask people how much of the budget they think is spent on foreign aid, the average guess is 28%. In reality, it’s only 1% of our budget. I’d much rather see us cut our defense and military spending–then we could afford to end poverty in this country and increase the aid we send to poor people in other countries, rather than bombing them and then wondering why half the world hates us.

  7. Reblogged this on woaroof and commented:
    The root of homelessness is people.

  8. Hi Hope. I am copying a comment that was posted on the reblogged version on Voices from the Margins so you will have an opportunity to reply is you wish.

    *****

    Submitted on 2014/05/18 at 6:09 pm
    It’s SO much easier to bypass the emotional attachment that people have when they see a human face to poverty when you are trying to ram something through some government department. If you are able to renegotiate poverty as something that someone is responsible for, as in “they should get off their lazy butts and go get a job…” sort of responsible for then you can redirect your sympathy to someone who deserves it and you might just get out of having to pay taxes to support this “poverty”. In all seriousness, a nation that refuses to deal with it’s poor in a sympathetic and proactive way is a nation on the brink. Without an appropriate and realistic welfare system, health care system and other necessities for a dignified life, the poor become second class citizens to be given a wide berth. Not “you and me down on their luck” but “bums”. It is much easier to reclassify than deal with something fundamentally wrong with a society especially when there is money and power at stake.
    narf77
    theroadtoserendipity.wordpress.com

  9. Hi Hope, I am copying a comment for your post “Another Hope Entirely”:

    Theresa says:
    May 24, 2014 at 2:24 pm
    This reminds me of a quote by Fr. Greg Boyle in his book, Tattoos on the Heart: “We seek a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”

    Submitted on 2014/05/24 at 3:04 pm | In reply to Theresa: http://soulgatherings.wordpress.com/

    This is a beautiful quote, Theresa, and so true! Thank you for sharing this. I am copying your comment to post on Hope’s blog so she can reply.

  10. What a struggle- I’m amazed at your courage!! You are turning it into an opportuity- keep on writing and posting!!

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