By: Revanche

In search of a common language: poverty and the great silence

December 27, 2011

Andrea’s post Are We Defined by Our Mistakes? touched some nerves at So Over Debt.  Her personal life with being broke and professional experiences helping the impoverished and the reactions to her conclusions illustrates how complex the issues surrounding poverty. And every time it seems defined, there’s another rock to label.

There aren’t simple, easy, sound-byte answers. There isn’t even an easy list of questions. If ever there was an area in which we tended to chaos, this is it.

Yes, our choices make us who we are. But yes, our nature make us who we are. And yes, our surroundings and environment make us who we are. So yes, until our mettle is tested, we won’t discover who we are. The snake eats the tail. As much as I hate that image. All of those influences feed into one another, all of them overlap and intertwine and jostle for position.


If ever we were emotional about money, I find that we are that much more reactive about the lack of it. And our neighbor’s lack of it. And his neighbor’s lack of it. Because no matter what politics you vote, no matter what religions you preach or practice, social inequality and ills touch us all. And it roots deeply, for some more deeply than others, for some more personally than others.

There’s what seems to be need to stifle compassion lest it be construed as weakness(?) in many reactions particularly for those who haven’t experienced it; someone else’s poverty is to be mocked lest it taint, spread or corrupt.  Judge lest ye be included, I suppose. It is a fact that in the greater picture, the existence of poorness affects us all. It could be you, there, one whisper says. It’d better not be, roars another voice, I work hard, I don’t deserve that! It’s another version of “there but for the grace of God go I.” It’s another version of “Get away from me.” And so on.

And it could be your sister, your brother, your parents, your son, your daughter, your grandparents. Your friends, your cousins, your aunts or uncles. It could be anyone you know and love. And for every single one of those people who might be poor, we can search to find reasons why. Why this one succeeded and why that one did not, and eventually you may find patterns. There are, in fact, statistics and patterns – I’ve seen them, anecdotally, but I can’t for the life of me see how to put them together and draw a good analysis from which we can do better.

There’s also resentment, resentment that we work hard and have to keep doing so while others who are less well off are being helped along. Therein lies judgment. Therein lies the willingness to lay blame at others’ doors whether or not it makes sense. I’ve been guilty of this a time or two with my brother. I sincerely doubt that his newly bloomed mental issues were always the cause of his behaviors in the past and it’s still hard to move past that to a place where I can unreservedly do what I need to do. But that’s hardly productive and doesn’t get at the real issue. He needs help and with boundaries, I am capable of rendering basic assistance. It’s always easier said than done. But that’s the bottom line.

If there’s a complicated question to be asked – why him? Why not me?  He was born with a myriad of talent, I, very very little. And raised in the same household with the same parents with the same educational benefits, except his was actually a little better. He had every bit as much privilege as I and yet here we are.


But the story, my friends, the story isn’t over until it’s over. Deep in the fabric of this country, in its soul, is the foundational Horatio Alger archetype that we can all bootstrap our way from rags to riches will-he, nill-he, the American Dream, the dream that we can all one day become successful – whatever that means.

That too, drives much of the emotion and expectation, by the way. Why can’t you lift yourself up from the ashes? Well, sometimes, coming from someone who barely believes this in her own life but knows it really is true: sometimes you can’t. And you certainly can’t do it alone.

I do wholeheartedly know this: It’s sheer folly and hubris to believe we exist in a vacuum and can succeed and achieve wholly on our own. There is an enormous amount of effort and blood, sweat and tears that has to come from you when clawing your way up. But alone?  Unlikely to the extreme.

Before there were helping hands, there were free internet forums and smart people setting up systems to make an extra dollar and sharing resources. Before there were scholarships, there were libraries with free books to borrow. Before there were blogger-friends, there were real friends who stood staunch in the breaches and supported me even when there was no personal gain or experience of what I was going through. Before I graduated college, there was at least a thousand hours of overtime. I had to do just about everything with my own hands, my own brain and my own breath and I had to sacrifice a lot to get there. But I had the support of a few good friends whether or no it made sense to them and I had one heck of a lot of resources provided by other people. There’s no way I’d ever say I did it all by myself.


People come here, my people came here, to live, to thrive, to make lives worth living. Not to fall to the depradations of political strife, corrupt government, grubbing out a living from the riverside or out in the jungle. Instead they faced a new world and its urban challenges of prejudice, language barriers, drugs, a corporate world rife with sheathed-claw politics, business conducted fairly or unfairly as the tempers befit the owners.

Should they be sketched, though, I suspect that the patterns of poverty would fall out similarly even accounting for personal choice and individual deviations. There are enough patterns over the generations that even my untrained eye can note them.


Excerpts from what John Scalzi said:
Being poor is knowing you work as hard as anyone, anywhere.
Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually stupid.
Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually lazy.
Being poor is a six-hour wait in an emergency room with a sick child asleep on your lap.
Being poor is never buying anything someone else hasn’t bought first.
Being poor is knowing you’re being judged.

I could keep going down that list, nodding, but the even more compelling parts are the comments. This set, John’s response to a (particularly, I thought, smug and righteous) comment, and the bolded bit is my emphasis, that was in no way reflective of the tone of the thread sums up much of why I’m going on about this:

Kathy Shaidle writes:
“Instead of posting a semi-romanticized, heart-wrenching litany of the things poor people have to put up with when they’re too lazy and/or dumb to get their acts together like we did, why not write another post telling poor people how you went from poor to not-poor.”

Ms. Shaidle, as you may or may not know, I live in a small Ohio town, most of whose inhabitants can be described as the rural poor: They work on farms and they work as blue collar workers. Many of them are poor, because as I’m sure you know farming and rural blue collar work doesn’t pay particularly well.
Very few of these rural poor are lazy, Ms. Shaidle. In fact, they work as hard or harder than anyone I know. And while many of them are uneducated, uneducated is not the same as stupid. In all, these are good, honest, hard-working people. Perhaps you are comfortable classifying them, and other hard-working poor, as “too lazy and/or dumb to get their acts together.” I am not.
Conversely, I’ve worked in high-tech and publishing for much of my life, and as a consequence I’ve known lots of middle and upper class folk. Some of them are quite lazy and/or stupid — so many, in fact, that I am quite comfortable making the observation that dumb and lazy can’t possibly be the deciding factors in who is poor and who is not in this country, because if they were, I wouldn’t be stuck in a three-hour meeting with this idiotic schmuck who is about to dump all his work on me so he can get out to the golf course.
I think it’s a problem that people assume that all the poor are either dumb or lazy, because it’s false, and because it allows the not-poor to go, oh well, they had their chance, and they didn’t do anything with it. As I mentioned before earlier in the thread, lots of poor people are doing everything right to improve their situation, but they don’t have any wiggle room when things go wrong.
The fact that people seem so willing to write off the poor as dumb and lazy is of course why I wrote in the original essay:
Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually stupid.
Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually lazy.
“Much more helpful than all the guilty white liberal, pseudo-Russell Banks stuff, what?”
I don’t feel in the slightest bit guilty, and I’ve never read Russel Banks. Also, Ms. Shaidle, I write what I choose. Maybe at some point I will write a “how I did it” piece. However, at this particular moment in time, for various reasons, I think it’s helpful to note to the comfortable what the experience of being poor is, because oddly enough, sometimes it seems like they don’t understand it well, even some of them who have come up from it.


I’ve been there. I’m still there, in my head. My parents were there. For periods in their lives, separately and together, they experienced a poorness the likes of which most, average, middle and upper-class Americans simply do not know. But the fact they had experienced a poorness even more staggeringly numbing, or at least my mom did, the period in the later years was easy by comparison.  Physically, anyway. That’s the one thing you can really count on with poverty. Once the grit works under your skin, some bits of it will always stay.

I know people judge. I know they assume. I hear it all the time. And there comes a time hearing shallow judgements, suggestions and assumptions leads to cutting off conversation about it completely which isn’t productive, but it is protective. Appearances to the contrary, I’m no naive child who doesn’t understand finances, the market economy or the basic idea that you get a job and hold it to make money to support a household.  I’m experienced enough to know that in the game of life, whether there is margin for error or not, errors will happen and having zero margin (we call it cash flow, an emergency fund, or cash cushion) is just one part of the inexorable slide into debt and poverty. So to all the people who said, “Why doesn’t your dad just get a job as …” while he was taking care of Mom ….That was not the problem. It was one of many problems. But it was a solution in the morass of problems I was dealing with.

In this newly married life, I’m having to relearn how to open these conversational paths, slowly and painfully, pointing out the complexity of the issues to PiC because he’s never lived this life and frankly, I’ve guarded that side of my life from those in my life who had never experienced deprivation in their lives. And while explaining the situation that developed with my brother, I also had to explain county benefits and welfare, shadowed with the embarrassment of “this is life when you’re poor.” Bad enough poor, bad enough mental issues, we had to go and combine them.

Those nerves of mine had been exposed this holiday weekend as I visited home and caught the tail end of my brother storming at some dentist’s office over their treatment and I don’t know what. He muttered, stomped and threatened to call the corporate office.

What corporate office? You’re poor. You have no money, no insurance, so you’re using a county facility where the dental care has been notoriously poor, negligent even, and that’s the normal state of affairs there. Do you think they care? Because I could tell you they really don’t.

But there’s no telling him. He knows what he knows and when he’s waving his Sword of Righteousness there’s no telling him anything. Then he comes to me. Do I know what dentist he can go to? Do I know the number he can call? Because he was given a “fake” number to their “corporate office.” Because clearly I still live around here and can fix everything after he’s gone up a tree again, as usual.

I was silent. He maundered off after a minute.

See that? See the blaming? It’s still incredibly hard for me to let go of the rage he elicits by continuing in remarkably familiar behavioral patterns even with the revelatory knowledge that he’s not in his right mind, probably.

But it’s also incredibly hard for me to choose to suit up and get back into the cycle of poverty that he lives in because there’s so little I can do to break it. It’s going to be the county dentist unless I come up with cash, and a lot of it, to pay for his dental work. And then will he take care of his teeth? I don’t know. And will that prevent any accidents or just regular degeneration that happens even when you do take care of them? No. And will I then come up with more cash when he next needs it? How long can I keep that up?  And what other medical issues can I support?

Knowing I’m going to fight an endless fight is draining before it even begins, and I’m not one to back down from any fight. I suspect that may be part of our society’s problem in learning how to deal with it. Because there’s no simple answer, because there’s no secret plan to fight poverty, because we can’t list ten action items and know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s debilitating and it’s distracting.

I had a conversation with someone who’s been a second mother to me. He’d gone to their house and had a meltdown. At first I wanted to be furious that he exposed us that way but then I just breathed deeply.  There’s absolutely nothing I can do about it. And I’m going to have to accept that this is the state of affairs. So we had a conversation. She’s convinced that he’s fried his brain on drugs. She’d had some professional experience in the area so I couldn’t say she was wrong; I haven’t been there, I literally couldn’t say what happened. She’s the staunchest conservative thinker I know, but even she agrees I should try to get him into therapy when I am able to deal with it.

That takes us back to the boundaries and the limits. He is my brother but I, too, have to do as much as I can and no more than is sensible for our lives.  And because he’s poor, because we’re not rich or well off, because he’s legally an adult and because I can not push my new family to the brink to provide for him, I don’t think there’s going to be very much I can do. At least, not to my satisfaction or socially acceptable conclusion, anyway. By which I mean, somehow get him to be in therapy, on whatever medication he may require if any, and working to support himself, out of the house, on his own.  He is going to have to be some combination of those things, but I can’t hold my breath that he’s going to become a fine upstanding citizen any time soon.

Having to discuss this openly, in real life, made me realize – there really has to be a way to have these conversations with less shame and less blaming. There has to be a way we can productively find big or small solutions with some heft behind them. Certainly this situation as an example is complicated with the mental illness muddying the waters, but when do they ever run clear?  Poverty encompasses this and many other encumbrances that could be managed tolerably in some circumstances, so while I haven’t got the answers, I do think it makes sense to embrace the complexity in the conversation.

This post was included in the Carnival of Personal Finance: Australia Edition.

5 Responses to “In search of a common language: poverty and the great silence”

  1. Grace. says:

    Wow, Revanche! Every word (from you and Scalzi) resonated with me. For you, it’s your brother. If you want to make it worse, imagine that it’s your child. Or Children. All five of my kids were adopted as older children. According to the romantic version of adoption, I would take them home, love them, and they would grow up to be neurosurgeons! But along the way were fetal alcohol effects, attachment disorders, mental illness, personality disorders and years of really bad parenting–so why is everyone so dang judgmental about them as adults. Personally, I’m pretty proud that they are all walking, talking and are (mostly) functional.

    Nothing fries me more than the discussion that comes up every time unemployment benefits are extended–THEY just don’t want to work; THEY are living off of unemployment and aren’t even looking for work; THEY have no incentive to work if we give them any assistance. I know plenty of the THEY’s and THEY would love to have a job, if only the jobs were there.

    Hang in there. Support your brother in the ways you can without sacrificing yourself. And keep on trying NOT to judge.

  2. *hug*

    Great post.

    I recently reread the Scalzi post and all 700-odd comments, when thinking about DH’s cousin’s kids (the oldest being hampered by mistakes she didn’t know she was making at age 14). It’s amazing how many comments on the Scalzi post touched on dentistry… and how much judging there’s on that subject alone… and how much actual research there is on the causes of bad teeth among lower income people.

    DH’s cousin’s wife was the happiest DH’s cousin had ever seen when she got her teeth pulled and replaced with implants. She wasn’t afraid to smile for the first time in a decade or more. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be constantly thinking about that.

    Hang in there.

  3. {sigh} What a situation.

    I suppose you could make paying for his dental care contingent on his going into therapy. But of course…you’d end up paying for that, too.

  4. Anthony says:

    One of my oet peeves is when people say “life is so unfair.” not because it’s not true, but because the statement itself just doesn’t do justice to just how unfair life is. Life is dull and mediocre for everyone and this sad existence is why I will never have children. You have control over almost nothing in life. 99% of your choices are made for you just by the fact that your were brought to life. The wealthy love to claim that their intelligence and hard work had something to do with how much money they have, when in reality, the majority of it is just chance. But they can’t and will not ever admit that; most aren’t even intelligent enough to realize it to admit it in the first place.

  5. Revanche says:

    @Grace: As I’ve had “charge” of my brother for the past nearly ten years…I empathize.

    @nicoleandmaggie: Mom spent the last seven months of her life undergoing painful dental reconstructions. It cost thousands of dollars and she’d only just been able to chew and smile again for the first time in years.

    She’d pretended everything was fine and hidden the pain and deterioration of her teeth from me, aided by the poor treatment at the local facilities, for quite some years.

    @Funny about Money: There’s nothing I can make contingent on anything without being there to make him do it. On top of paying for it. He simply won’t follow through on anything I don’t literally MAKE him do. And even then.

    He didn’t even show up for part of Mom’s funeral.

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