Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 1453, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
St. Vincent de Paul Society: Who are the poor?
by Michael Cain, for the Inland Register
(From the November 19, 2015 edition of the Inland Register)
Members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society – Vincentians – assemble boxes of food to deliver to needy families in this undated photo. (IR file photo)
“Socialism,” the bumper sticker on the truck in front of me read, “taking money from those who work and giving it to those who won’t.”
I shook my head sadly, not sure whom to feel sorrier for: the poor cruelly stereotyped by the message, or the owner of the truck, who obviously had not been blessed, as I have been, to know those burdened by poverty.
The bumper sticker owner might be forgiven his ignorance. To understand the poor, one must meet them where they are. The poor are isolated, separated from the rest of society not only by wealth, but by many factors such as lack of education, poor health, and our aversion to them. Yet 15.2 percent of our neighbors in Spokane County are living below the poverty line.
Many agencies in Eastern Washington, religious and secular, do wonderful work serving those in poverty. Only a few meet the poor in their homes. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is one of those organizations. Since the Society’s founding in 1833, its members, known as Vincentians, have visited the poor where they live. As a result, Vincentians gain a unique, personal understanding of the poor. Let me share a bit about the poor, not as abstractions of data and statistics, but as the people I have come to know as a Vincentian in Spokane.
Those in poverty defy generalization. Nonetheless, many of the poor encountered by Vincentians in metro Spokane fall into one of three types of poverty: generational, situational, or what I’ll call “invisible” poverty.
Generational poverty, as the name implies, besets families decade after decade. It’s the most difficult kind of poverty to encounter. Its effects are dramatic and heartbreaking, and solutions to it are elusive. As with its many causes, solutions for generational poverty usually require generations, though determined individuals can, with help, beat it.
Mental illness, which is sometimes itself generational and frequently compounded by substance abuse, often underlies generational poverty. A family we regularly help includes a grandmother and mother who can’t work because of mental health issues and a young son whose mental illness makes him so violent the family can’t live in an apartment. Often, many of these factors feed upon each other, creating a devastating reverse synergy, as in this case: The family is excluded from decent subsidized housing by the child’s violence, yet they can’t afford to rent a detached home. Other factors associated with generational poverty include single parenthood (usually a mother), lack of education or anything else preventing meaningful work, or catastrophic, progressively debilitating illness.
The “generationally poor” inevitably live in the worst conditions. Their poor work, credit, and rental histories force them into decrepit, marginally habitable housing often owned by predatory or absentee landlords who take advantage of vulnerable tenants. Filthy and unmaintained, frequently without heat and working plumbing, these buildings are often dangerous, lacking safe electrical systems, smoke detectors, and locking doors and windows. Because tenants in such places fear their landlords and the ever-present threat of eviction, they rarely seek remediation of problems with their housing. Such housing is always in high crime areas, further adding to the fear and stress of those living there.
Situational poverty, on the other hand, is typically the result of the impact of an acute crisis on lives that would otherwise be stable. Usually, it can be overcome with minimal assistance, such as a month’s rent or covering a utility bill. The impact of extreme cases can continue for years, however, and even lead to generational poverty.
Situational poverty is often triggered either by the loss of a job or the onset of a debilitating illness. We recently worked with a family whose breadwinner, the father, was a successful, well-paid professional. But then he was diagnosed with terminal, metastasized stage IV cancer. Despite good health insurance and other resources, the loss of income and astronomical medical expenses wiped the family out financially.
Situational poverty creates difficulties that can often be held at bay with the right help quickly delivered. Unfortunately, such help can be hard to find. Usually, those in situational poverty don’t qualify for public assistance or aren’t aware of alternatives. But with most of us just a couple of paychecks away from disaster, almost any family can find itself facing the loss of everything very quickly.
Invisible poverty affects those who are barely making ends meet. These people’s lives can be devastated by the tiniest economic blip. The invisible poor are often disabled or elderly and depend on Social Security or other minimal public assistance. If they do work, it’s at a minimum wage job that offers no security, no benefits, no future, no hope. Despite near-constant toil, they just can’t get ahead.
Such people’s lives are thrown into chaos by things the rest of us would consider inconveniences: a car breaking down, a child needing to see the doctor, a furnace going out. Because there is no financial cushion, such problems force the invisible poor into impossible decisions: Pay for food or rent? Avista or utilities? Go to work, or stay home with a sick child and risk losing the job?
Frequently, the invisible poor, like those in situational poverty, don’t qualify for services because their circumstances are not desperate enough. They aren’t homeless or in receipt of an eviction notice, so agencies that might help with rent or mortgage won’t. They make too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to afford even subsidized health insurance. They live in a no-man’s land of hopelessness and frustration: too impoverished to get ahead, not impoverished enough to qualify for assistance.
Regardless of the type of poverty, the poor all share certain striking characteristics.
Those in poverty live with a sort of stress most of the rest of us would find terrifying, debilitating, and unendurable.
Most live in outright fear of the prospect of losing everything. The first victim of stress and fear is loss of the ability to think clearly. The second is fatigue. Stress and fear prevent sound sleep and, more, have a direct physical effect that simply wears the body down. Fatigue then has its impact on cognitive ability. Thus begins a vicious cycle with potentially mortal consequences: Poor sleep is now thought to be a contributing factor in Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
All those in poverty are victims. Of mental or physical illness. Of violence and crime. Of dysfunctional families. Of ignorance and lack of education. Of predatory or uncaring landlords. Of stereotypes and judgment. Of greed. Of a justice system that offers them little protection and often seeks punishment before rehabilitation. Of a society that places greater stock in the illusion of “self-reliance” than the demands of compassion. Of circumstances not just beyond their control, but beyond their abilities to comprehend.
But the poor are also generous, sometimes to a fault and often beyond belief. It’s not uncommon for Vincentians to encounter people barely making it themselves giving shelter and food – all they have – to others in need. We’re often asked by people to whom we’ve just brought food if it’s okay to share it with the person next door. And our most generous donors – people who make our work possible – are those who themselves have almost nothing to give.
Most of the poor want to work. Most would give anything for the grace of meaningful labor, the opportunity to forge their family’s future with their talents and the work of their hands. But for whatever reason, this gift is too often denied them.
The poor want, perhaps above all, to be like everyone else, to be part of the community. This powerful desire can lead to decisions the rest of us may find odd and even be tempted to condemn: a big screen TV and a nice car, but little else, with food and other essentials notable for their absence. But taking the time to know people can temper the temptation to judge. One single mother we visited had sold virtually everything but the TV: She kept it so her kids could connect with the world through Sesame Street.
The poor we meet are almost all people of faith. The faith of the poor is an authentic faith, one that has been tested – in ways and by forces to which I’d not want to subject my own faith – and survived. When the poor offer to pray for you, you have received a great gift indeed.
Perhaps that is what the poor are most of all: a gift to the rest of us. With their lives, they invite us to inventory our own lives and prioritize them wisely, to offer mercy instead of judgment. They invite us to acknowledge and accept that most essential of truths: that all we are and all we have comes from God, not from ourselves.
Who are the poor? They are each of us, except for the many graces – health, intelligence, talent, education, opportunity, a paycheck – that the Lord gives us that we neither deserve nor have earned.
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