Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Note to Well-to-Do Quakers on Glorifying Poverty

For several years when I was a child, we lived in a rural county in Upstate New York. Although beautiful, it is also impoverished. Some of the kids in my school came to school stinking and dirty. One boy arrived at school in the dead of a New York winter without a coat boasting that he was so tough he didn't need a jacket. When I told my mother about it, she explained to me that some parents couldn't afford running water or warm coats for their children. This was a revelation to me. I grew up in a comfortable, warm house in the more affluent village.  Although I remember my parents' money-worries, and though I worried about money quite a bit myself even as a small child, I never worried that we would not have enough for food or heat or running water. The poorest kids lived way out in the country on roads that only social workers like my mother often travel. In her job as an advocate and counselor of crime victims, especially of rape, domestic violence, sexual assault, and incest she was out on those roads every day. When she told me that some kids' parents didn't have the means to care for them, she never hinted that their children would be better off somewhere else just because they were poor. She and Dad made it clear that poor people do not choose poverty nor are they lazy or lesser in any way (although I did grow up thinking maybe rich people had questionable ethics and a touch of laziness.) She made me understand that people love their children and that children love their parents even in the worst situations. Sometimes a family became so injured, so isolated and so desperate that horrible things begin to happen. When the human heart is shattered badly enough, it lacerates the soul. My mother's job was to stand up for the rights of women and children whose families were caught in cycles of poverty, violence, and isolation. Her job was to empower and protect survivors of crime and if possible, to assist them in making the steps necessary to transcend those vicious cycles. Sometimes that meant families could no longer live together. Usually it meant that people needed help. They needed guidance, and service and protection. They needed money. My folks taught me that poverty does not, by itself, result in scenarios in which men abuse the physically weaker members of their family. It doesn't necessarily lead to drug addiction and alcoholism, to fighting and prostitution and child abuse. But it doesn't help. It never helps.

I have heard and read Friends discussing "the poor" as if they were a laudable group of simple, faithful souls we can all emulate. Whenever I read such a comment, I admit that I assume that the writer or speaker has never had close contact for an extended period of time with "the poor" or else they wouldn't say something so stupid.  Maybe saying those things helps them deal with their guilt over having so much more material wealth than they actually need.  Being impoverished doesn't turn you into Bob Cratchett.  Not by a long shot.  There is nothing, absolutely nothing romantic about poverty. There is nothing so honorable or noble or virtuous in poverty. Poverty is dirty and inhumane. It is degrading and exhausting. Oh sure, you can always find examples of those great souls whose light cannot be dimmed no matter what misery they suffer but for the most part, poverty hurts and it twists and it maims those who live in it. Perhaps it makes wealthy folks feel better to think of the poor as noble but I tell you there is nothing noble about going hungry. There is nothing valiant about sending your child to school with shoes that don't fit or with no warm coat in the freezing cold. Tell me how unemployment or work in oppressive settings leads to spiritual enlightenment. Tell me how it uplifts the spirit to know that when your peers go off to college, you will go off to work at some low-paying, dirty job (if you are lucky.)

Tell me why it is alright that among the most brilliant people I know are women who have no money to fix broken teeth in their mouths let alone get the graduate degree they clearly deserve. Tell me why it is fair that we continue to look the other way as women and children continue to be raped and abused by their own husbands, boyfriends and fathers who are themselves dehumanized by their bosses and other men.  Tell me how the loss of unions and the pollution of working class communities does anything to help the American worker. Tell me why there are still people living in the country with no doors on their houses, no water running for their toilets and tubs and no food in their cupboards? Tell me why children die for want of health and dental care, for want of good nutrition? What is so f*cking good about any of that?

I have not seen this famous faithful resignation and special virtue in the poor.   I have seen rage and resentment. I've seen violence and sorrow so intense it festers and stinks. And why the hell not? Why the hell are the poor supposed to be the angels of virtue who save the rich from their arrogance? Screw that. Let the rich save themselves. Give the rest of us food, medical care, housing, childcare, and educations. See how many of us are willing to play the role of "simple folk" when we have the means to feed our kids without worrying if we'll lose our homes.  For many years now, I've lived on the softest edge of poverty and I can tell you that even the mild poverty in which I live has made me more bitter, more angry, and more resentful than I ever thought I could be.  It isn't just the worry about having enough money each month for food and other essentials but the thought that I have been cut off from any real influence as a thinker or a writer or a worker.  It is the shame I hide that I can't invite people to my home or that despite my academic degree I'm not welcome at functions with the rich folk who hire me (or use my services for nothing).  It is the anger I feel when I am told that a good Quaker provides financial support to their meeting.  It is losing almost every battle in which I am engaged whether it is with an employer, a phone company or a doctor.

Having no money has made me more aware of injustice but it has not helped me fight it because having no money makes me a loser.  If you don't have money you lose.   That's the reality.  What I've learned from my life with my husband who is a truck driver is this: They can take your lunch break.  They can charge you for services you didn't buy.  They can ignore your phone calls.  They can deny you medical care.  They can make you work overtime and then they can refuse to pay you.  They can fire you for no reason.  They can threaten you, yell at you and harass you.  They can even deny you time to take a piss.  And there ain't nothing you can do about it because they have money and lawyers and time and you don't.  And we're lucky.  We're fricking rolling in it compared to others in our community.  I'm using every ounce of "capital" I have as a writer, teacher, voter, and mother to fight but after so many years and so many defeats I'm tired.  I'm tired and angry and cynical.

 I've gone hungry because I had no money to buy food.  Like not a penny in the bank and not a penny in my pocket and debt on top of all that. I've gone without health care because I had no insurance.   I slept on folded quilts on the floor of my old trailer because I couldn't afford a mattress. I've had to rely on relatives to put a roof over my head because I could not afford my own place but I could escape it because I had middle-class and affluent friends and relatives who have kept my body and soul together. I'm lucky. Whenever I have been in need, even if I don't complain (and even when I've tried to hide it), my folks have seen my need and they have addressed it.  They bought me that mattress.  They've given me money.  They made sure I had a home and taken my children and me on vacations we could never afford on our own.  They've made the calls to officious pricks who wouldn't talk to me but who would listen to my more powerful parents. But what if they couldn't? What if my parents were as divorced from sources of societal power as I am?

Even though I don't make much money myself, I've had all kinds of luxuries just because I was reared in a middle-class home but I've never had the luxury of believing that poor choose their poverty. I've never had the luxury of believing that there was something God-ordained or beautiful about need. For those of you who characterize "the poor" as models of good Christianity, let me tell you about what I learned as a kid. Sometimes women have abortions because they are raped by their fathers. Sometimes people take drugs because reality hurts so much. Sometimes people drink themselves to death. Sometimes mommies are beaten up or even killed by daddies. Sometimes bosses steal money from their workers. Sometimes people give up their dreams for a job at a factory. Sometimes kids go to school without coats in the winter then lie that they are tough to save themselves from shame.

And this is what I know of the rich. Listen up.  Their poverty is not a mark of their goodness (though good they may be) but a mark of your shame and your failure to live up to your obligations as a human being.  You have no right to your extra income, to your extra homes, to your extra cars, to your fancy clothes and your jewelry until no child has to lie that terrible lie. You have no right to your boats or your vacations or your air travel until no one's has to walk in broken, ill-fitting shoes. You have no right to your plastic surgery and your yoga classes and your health gurus until no one has to watch their child die of a tooth abscess. You have no right to glorify the poor until you have lived among them.


Jessica said...

Incredible post. Thank you.

ellen abbott said...

So powerful Hystery. And so right. As artists we usually live hand to mouth but we have never suffered true poverty. I've never understood those who scorn the poor instead of trying to help because there but for the accident of our birth go any one of us.

Lone Star Ma said...


T. James said...

Thank you.

Meg said...

Just like the query from Friendly Bible Study asks - yes, this is true to my experience.

Hystery said...

That was a tougher one for me to write, at least emotionally. In fact, I was just about poised to run and hide away again... so I thank you all for your comments. I'm awfully glad that other people can sympathize with these thoughts. It makes me feel slightly less crazy and ornery.

fiddler said...

I received this post from my son, who reads your blog. This is one of the most powerful statements I have ever read. My husband and I have never been in true poverty, in fact we are pretty squarely "middle class", but your words really resonate with me. I will see the world differently from now on.

Thank you...


Hystery said...


Thank you. That means a great deal to me.

RDenning said...

I was one of those children who walked in broken and ill fitting shoes. We cooked with a wood stove when we couldn't afford electricity. I often felt like a non-person at school. Other kids would laugh at the clothes I had to wear. That was fifty years ago. I still live with the depression born of family violence and alcohol abuse. In many ways it is worse now. I work with so called "juvenile delinquents". I've met adolescent girls who sleep with forty year old men to get methamphetamine. I've met twelve year old children who have no adults in their lives who love them. When people talk to me about how being poor is not so bad, I want to punch them. When they hear that I grew up in a large family and they say how much fun that must be, I want to puke. I have the same reaction when I hear religious people talking about the virtue of suffering. I often hear the lie that God never gives you more than you can handle. I see people struggling and losing every day. Some of the people who say those things have been poor. They bury their memories in order to live a life that makes some kind of sense. I have been getting angrier lately because the greed of the wealthy has never been so flagrant. You have lots of company Hystery, but that is not a good thing.

Hystery said...

Thanks for your comment. I too am not a fan of the notion that God never gives us more than we can handle. I've seen too many people break.

T. James said...

I'm the Fiddler's son...

The other day when I read this the first time, I was moved beyond words. Most words still evade me, but others have expressed them for me.

While I have never personally experienced the crushing, long-term poverty you and others have described, I have seen it, in kids I went to school with, and the people I meet daily at my job as a utility technician in some of the poorest parts of the city.

Poverty, true poverty does drive people to desperate, sometimes horrible actions. Something must be done, but what? I have no answers, but I continue to seek them.

As far as the overwhelming emotions that come from writing essays such as this, I can relate to you sentiment. I've written several essays on my own blog in recent months that, by the time I finished and punched the 'publish' key, I could barely see straight for the tears of sadness or rage.

Please keep writing, and don't run away... Know that your words are helpful and inspirational to many others.

Again, thank you.

Hystery said...


And thank you also for your work and words.

herb said...

Such a flood of well deserved praise for a work of feeling! Congratulations.

I am now, at age 64, an unemployed pediatrician, who spent most of his life working with poor children, specifically victims of abuse and neglect. I am unemployed because access by poor children to help has deteriorated over my thirty years of practice. What replaced caring was a money seeking industry for whom poor children were merely an industrial resource. Everywhere you find this same process, the commodification of the poor. Actual generosity has been replaced by a plague of "poverty pimps," "child abuse pimps" and foundation grant whores. But then this is all very predictable in a system that has had human feeling replaced by fear and contempt for each other.

Decade after decade I attended one Friends Meeting after another as I moved around the US and there too I found the same process of spiritual decay that obscures the images of injustice in order to make material comfort less guilt ridden. With the sacrilization of greed reality has been put aside.

I grew up in the kind of poverty you talk about, often went hungry, stole water from neighbors taps in order to take a cold bath out of a bucket, learned that I could deal with hunger (I still can not leave food on my plate) and experienced the scorn that our culture tends to heap on the miserable. I managed to go to college with a scholarship, but did not gain a degree because of the Viet Nam War. To evade the draft I went to Viet Nam as a civilian aid worker with a deferment. For two years I lived the life of poverty in a small refugee village. I ate sparingly, bathed out of cup of water and was buffeted by the same violent dangers as my fellow villagers. The difference was that these Vietnamese refugees had community. They were poor in wealth but not in spirit. Poverty is never a good in itself but it can, given a supportive system of governance, be an inspiration for solidarity.

People just as poor as the ones I lived with (anti-communist Catholics) organized to defeat the most powerful military force in history. Ten resistance fighters died for every American soldier. Millions of people died, perhaps as much as 10% of the population during the course of the war (contrasted with our national frenzy over loosing 3,000 in NY). The poor will bring change or no change will occur because they are the only ones with sufficient motivation.

I too have no brief for poverty, but poverty itself is not the issue as I see it. Poverty is a symptom of societal dysfunction rooted in heartlessness. No person, no country, can survive without a heart. It is heartlessness toward the suffering of others that is the disease. It is a relentlessly progressive disease that ends in death whether in the case of the individual or in the case of a society. The prognosis for our society, for our species, is very grim. But just maybe truth telling like yours will pull our rabbit out of the hat and save us from ourselves. No one knows the future for sure, but we can come to know our own hearts.

Good work. Keep it up.


Anonymous said...

We have a global delusion that we need an economy, some way of measuring each person's worth against another's on the basis that there's only a finite amount of the stuff to go round. We're wedded to an ideology that actually makes no sense in terms of our physiology and neurology. The SCARF model of our neurological/emotional needs [] shows that money's not the point; what we're all about neurologically, emotionally, physiologically is not hierarchy and competition but having a secure place in mutually supportive social networks.

Frankly, instead of saying that human needs are best met by status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness, we could as easily talk about them being met by peace, truth, equality, simplicity, and sustainability. The systems we are so embedded in as to make us think that they reflect human nature are themselves the biggest threat to us and all other life on Earth.

How do we break out of the delusion? I cling to parts of the fear of change, and it revolts me. Fear is so powerful. I keep hearing people telling me that I want everyone to live mired in poverty - damn it, I want everyone to have the comforts and opportunities I have because my family got the breaks and got out of poverty when I was a kid. I do not want to deny anyone their yoga classes; I want everyone to have the kind of life where they have the option to take those classes.

But telling ourselves the story that this is just the way things are, that it's unfortunate that we'll always have to deal with poverty, and that it's just human nature for some to be rich and many to be poor is a safe way to keep ourselves in mortal danger. It's like running around in the middle of a highway and thinking "Life is all about having to dodge the traffic. Some people get to live on the traffic island, but there's only so much room there. We just have to keep picking up the bodies from the highways and fighting to teach people the best ways to dodge the cars so they have a shot at living on the traffic island", and not thinking "This is patently ludicrous. We need to stop the traffic while we move everyone out of the highway and build a community elsewhere."

I find myself seduced by the familiarity of it all too often. When I'm dealing with poor clients who are battling the weight of the whole system, I focus on helping them navigate the system. When it's fresh in my mind, I focus on how rotten the system is and how we need to throw it away. And other times it's like I wake up to myself mindlessly being part of the system, propping it up by accepting it as the way things are.

The only thing I can do is try to make those unconscious periods shorter and the waking periods longer, and to keep plugging away at triage while lobbying for a different way things are.

Carrie said...

I appreciate the words and feelings shared in this post. Thanks for your work.


Shawna said...

This is a good post, Hystery.

It has been 8 years since I had a new pair of glasses, and 9 years since I visited a dentist... not because I have chosen to avoid them! Last year was a particularly tough year... I had enough coal to last about half the winter, and I was pretty sure that there wasn't going to be any extra cash showing up (Kevin had just started his new job as a truck driver after being unemployed for a while... money was tight). I made the coal last all winter by blocking off most of the rooms in the house, and at night I heated only one room and we all slept on the floor in the living room. We stayed warm, but it sometimes felt crowded!

I know what you are talking about. Poverty is injustice.

Thomas Merton pointed out that there is a difference between a voluntary poverty in which all of one's most basic needs are met, and involuntary poverty. I'm hoping for voluntary poverty someday.... because you're right; it seems a true sin to spend $150 on a dress when someone's child is hungry. And I know they are hungry... mine have never been truly hungry, but there have been weeks on end when they lived primarily on free day-old bread from a friendly bakery, margarine, and expired milk from a friendly grocer. That was hard enough... it has made me even more sympathetic to people who have less than us.

Luckily for us, my meeting has been much more supportive of us than yours sounds like... our yearly meeting holds the mortgage on our house; they haven't received a full monthly payment in several years, and they have let us know that whatever we can pay each month will be alright. Without their support, I don't know what we would have done. They have been a blessing.

Hystery said...


I've been encouraged in my own simplicity (voluntary and otherwise) these past years by reading about you and Kevin so it is very good to have your voice included here. Quite an honor.

I hear you about the dentist and the glasses! We've been lucky to have insurance through my husband's work but this past year, when that job disappeared for us, so did the medical care. And it never adequately covered the dentist. :( So I've gone without good dental care for many years.

This past month I bought two new pairs of jeans with the birthday money my grandmothers gave me. Usually I save the birthday money to pay bills or buy things for the kids. I realized that I haven't had a new pair of jeans in something like a decade. All my pants are ripped, stained, and worn. I should have gone to the thrift store to buy the jeans but I didn't. I feel strangely exhilarated and guilty about my new pants.

Shawna said...

I am laughing about your new pants! Clothes are not my problem... my mother sends me clothes, and I supplement those once a year or so with a new skirt (I bought a beautiful purple skirt on sale at Penny's 2 weeks ago for $1.50), and that satisfies that need, both physical and emotional.

But a couple months ago, I took some money that my Dad sent, and I went and bought myself a cd, Fisherman's Blues by The Waterboys. I felt decadent.

It's good and important to take care of ourselves, right up to and including an occasional small joyful luxury. Among other things, it teaches our children that it will be ok for them to take care of themselves when they are grownups and parents too. And we remind ourselves that we are worthwhile when we do it. Which we are. Gosh darn it, you're good enough for those new pants! :)

Hystery said...

Thank you, Shawna. I have tears in my eyes and I guess it is because I needed to be told that I am worthy of my pants. LOL There are times when I doubt that.

kevin roberts said...

Hystery, have you ever read Orwell's Keep the Aspidystra Flying?

That and his Road to Wigan Pier specifically focus on this common fiction that living poor is romantic: the old tragic-artist-starving-to-death-in-garrett stereotype.

Being poor is cold, dirty, and hungry.

Hystery said...

No, I haven't read that material. My reading list gets longer and longer!

Poverty itself is a horrible thing. I believe there is an important difference between a life lived simply and one lived in deprivation. I am an advocate of voluntary simplicity which I think will lead us away from poverty.

Mary Ellen said...

Hystery, this is a powerful and (appropriately) unsettling piece. Thank you for writing it. I also want to thank you for the earlier post about your teaching. I love the "adopt a dead person" assignment! Given the unfair conditions for perpetual adjuncts (my husband is one as his main paid work, and I am too as an "overload" to my day job), I am truly impressed by the dedication, imagination, intellect, creativity, and heart evidenced by the teaching approach you detail.

May your work thrive - may you continue to prick the bubbles of willful ignorance of your wider community - may you and your loved ones be well through this year - and may you find times of ease and joy to balance the times of struggle. And - you are certainly worth some new pants, and much more!

Hystery said...

Mary Ellen,

Thank you. I sure do appreciate those words of kindness and encouragement.

You all wouldn't believe how much I am enjoying these pants. Pants with no holes, rips, stains, or scraggly hems? Woo Hoo!

Leslie said...

Amen, Hystery!
for years, post divorce, I raised my kids in what we call "genteel poverty", sometimes jobless, sometimes working two jobs, and eventually with a grant to go to college and almost get a degree....
it was always interesting, but there were too many cold winters, with no money to pay to run the furnace, too many untreated toothaches, undiagnosed illnesses we had to just 'get over' and too many weeks of very sparse meals for me to want to go through all that again.
Until I read your piece I thought I was the only intelligent educated woman on the planet who couldn't afford to fix a broken tooth.....
We've all lived through this so far, but it hasn't been exactly a storybook life. Do the upper class even know we exist? Do they really?
Involuntary poverty is far from romantic.

Shawna said...

Leslie, you have reminded me of two stories about my mother, that I hope Hystery won't mind me sharing. She also spent years raising kids, post-divorce, with never quite enough to go around.

One winter (during the late 70s), natural gas prices more than doubled, and she couldn't afford to heat the house. And we were pretty cold. So, she went to the lawyer, and asked for an extra $100 a month in child support. My father refused. "Not a dime." He was of the opinion that she wasted the money... But... he said he would pay the heating bill. My mom went home and cranked it up. We were toasty for the rest of the winter!

Another time, a lady came to the door selling magazines, and my mom had had a rough week. Instead of genteely saying "no, thank you" she told the magazine lady all about the broken car that she couldn't afford to fix, and the leak in the roof, and the house being in foreclosure because my dad hadn't honored his end of the divorce decree, and how she had sent the water company a check made out to the electric company and vice versa, in order to get another week's grace.... and the poor magazine lady stood there and listened, and when my mom was done, she said, "Can I use your bathroom?" Absolutely.... a kindred soul. They understood one another. You ain't alone, Leslie....

Anonymous said...

Christ Almighty, this was real.

My mother and my boyfriend have lived poor. And they know that poverty is not a virtue by any means. In fact, my boyfriend Joe often says "poverty isn't a virtue - it just makes access to vice that much more difficult."

He also says, and he's been raked over the coals about this by enlightened Unitarian Universalists: "Wealthy people are two things: wealthy first, people second."

Is that really that terrible of a thing to say?

Anonymous said...

Thank you Hystery for using the words "living on the soft fringes of poverty". I have always felt so guilty about feeling impoverished when in my neighborhood I'm considered "rich" by comparison to most of the people who live here. And that's me who thinks that. I tell myself everyday that there are so many around me who have so much less I should be ashamed of myself for feeling the struggle of just barely getting by. I've had to use the food pantry for the first time in years this year and I cried out of shame the first time I went. I don't consider myself poor, but, I am definitely dancing on the fringes. No one should have to feel ashamed to just have the basics in life.

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