A VIEW FROM THE INSIDE OF A LIFE OF POVERTY
Sunday was Mother’s Day. So it was timely that on that day I happened to read a column written by a man named Joshua Wilkey. He has a blog called “This Appalachia Life.”
I was so profoundly moved by that column, entitled “My Mother Wasn’t Trash” that in this week’s Poverty and Equity Thought Leader column I am going to first, ask that you go to the website and read it and second, highlight a few thoughts from his column that I think are important and relevant.
The column “My Mother Wasn’t Trash” can be found at: http://bit.ly/AppalachiaLife
It is very well worth the time to read it. I won’t give you the backstory on Joshua’s Mother; that is a story so powerful that you should only read it directly from him. But I do want to take a small section of his writing and give it to you here. Because probably the majority of the readers of this column won’t actually go to the website and read his whole column; so at least you’ll hear this powerful summary. I edited out some partisan wording because the message is as powerful and true without them as with them, and they just will get in the way for now. And the reality is that this is not a ‘party’ issue, it is a everyone issue.
“It is as popular now as ever to blame poor people for their station in life…politicians love to talk about how poor people could stop being poor if only they made better choices or worked harder…These assholes – and I do not use that slur lightly – have no clue what it is like to grow up poor. They have no clue how hard it is in many places in the US just to keep the lights on and food on the table. It is easy for them, from the comfort of their cushy offices and homes, with full bellies and bank accounts, to pretend that poor people like my mother are poor because they are stupid or lazy or ignorant or irresponsible rather than confront the broken systems that perpetuate poverty in Appalachia and all across the US. Poor people don’t contribute to reelection funds, but those who profit from poor people sure do. Therefore, truth be told, most politicians couldn’t care less about the plight of the poor. There’s so much profit to be made from poor people – think payday loans, high-interest rent-to-own stores, for-profit colleges, and overpriced mobile homes – that politicians and their crony-capitalist donors have a vested interest in keeping them poor.
Many of us who have personal experience with poverty understand that addiction, mental illness, poor health, and lack of education are symptoms of poverty rather than causes. When I think about all the suffering my mother endured over the course of her life, I can’t help but wonder how anyone could think that she was to blame for her poverty. She started working at 12, and she worked every day for years, long after her body gave out on her. She made choices, some good, and plenty bad, but poor people have fewer options when faced with impending and potentially life-changing decisions. Poor people like Mom are often forced to choose from a small number of shitty options, and most of them try to find the one that is slightly less shitty than the others. When people are eaten up mentally and physically by a lifetime of compounded shitty choices, they reach a point where they can’t even decide what is best anymore, because they realize that no matter what they do – no matter how hard they try – they are cogs in a broken machine and nobody cares about them anyway. Poor Appalachian people are broken, but not nearly as broken as the systems that keep them poor…
While we must not approach any instance of poverty, whether in Kinshasa, Congo or Frakes, Kentucky, with the flawed notion that we fully understand it, we must understand that the solutions will be found in action both by those who are impoverished and by those who are not. This is not a problem to be fixed by condescending outsiders, but neither is it a problem to be fixed only by those who are impoverished. Neither group can fix it alone.
The process starts, I think, with taking time to listen. Then, we can try to understand. I might understand it a little better than most because I grew up white trash. I have seen my mother and my family members and my neighbors be forced to make impossible choices between a limited number of shitty options. I have at times had to make those impossible choices myself. Even having grown up poor and having spent my academic career researching and writing about poverty, I do not claim to understand it fully. We must realize that there exists no single narrative about Appalachian poverty. Not all poor people are the same. Not all impoverished families fit into a single category even if they are united by similar demographics.
When my mother died, she had fifty-six cents in her bank account. Had someone told her they really needed that fifty-six cents, she would have given it to them without a second thought. She lived in a world that led her to understand the importance – no, the necessity – of helping others. If there’s any hope at all for fixing the brokenness in Appalachia, it lies with those who have a servant’s heart. It starts with putting aside condescending and selfish beliefs. It starts with taking a lesson from my sweet little mama and loving the outcast and the unlovable.
It starts with listening instead of talking.”
As I wrote a few weeks ago on healthcare, and many times before, solutions to complex issues like poverty are not created with a paint roller. They are crafted with an artist’s brush. Single solution programs and broad categorizations of the poor, the sick, or the unemployed are going to fail. Because every poor, sick, or unemployed person is different and their situation is different. So if we listen to their story, we might find that they know the solution – they just need our support to make it work.