Look down, not up – my poverty manifesto

Today is Blog Action Day, when thousands of blogs around the world will address the same topic. This year’s theme is poverty. And as it happens, I have a heck of a lot to say on this issue.

What is poverty?

I’m not poor. I’ve had times when I’ve struggled to pay the bills, lain awake at night worrying, but fortunately, they’ve been few. I am blessed to have the skills and connections that have allowed me to stride forward even from those points when I’ve been at zero.

Now, I live in an interesting world. For one thing, our social environment has given rise to several conversations that start with our daughter’s question, “Are we poor?”

Our neighbors’ lives are similar to ours. But the neighborhoods surrounding ours are mostly more upscale. This means that many of the homes around us, the children at the park, the children at play groups and stores, are generally posher than we are.

My daughter attends a private school, and many of her friends have big cars, new homes, Hawaiian vacations, their own bathrooms and whole herds of those gold standards of second-grade wealth, Webkinz. The school is in the process of formally addressing various diversities among its population, but the head of school has acknowledged that economic diversity will not be on that list.

We live in a socio-economic landscape where our home — 1,900 square feet including the full basement — is smaller than average. Our kitchen, alas, is not upgraded, and our bathrooms have no jets, colored lights, marble or terrazzo. We do not have a flat-panel TV, although I have been tempted. More often, the last couple of years, we’ve felt uncomfortable about entertaining in our small living area, because I do not want to make our guests uncomfortable with the cramped quarters and lack of perfect furnishings. I jokingly refer to our home as our “hovel” because it feels poor indeed compared to so many homes we visit, either in person or in the pages of magazines and on TV redecorating shows. (That and the piles of junk that make our backyard look a bit like a hobo campsite; but that’s our own fault.)

And yet.

We drive to school every day past three apartment buildings dedicated to housing immigrants to this country. One is known as “the African Village.” Another houses a new group of immigrants from southeast Asia, who stroll the streets in sarongs and flip-flops. I know these families have come with so little to start a new life. Sometimes, our conversations — “Are we poor?” — start there.

Sometimes, we talk about the families we have sponsored the past two Christmases. Single parents leaving environments of abuse or addiction, starting over from scratch, providing for their children while trying to step ahead themselves.

Sometimes, we talk about choice. We live in our small home because we have chosen not to work very hard at the type of work we would need to do to afford the lifestyle of some of my daughter’s peers. They have chosen to do it, and they are enjoying the fruits of their labor. So be it. We are poorer in cash; we are equally rich in choice.

So we’re cheap.

We live in a time when it’s really not broadly considered OK to not be rich. I’ve seen this even in the name of my blog. I named it “Cheap Like Me” from the perspective that it IS OK to be cheap — if you do it so that you are living by your values and enjoying life. Over the blogosphere, I’ve seen again and again people grousing about being cheap (they prefer to use solely the term “frugal”). People online have said that actions like using deodorant in a store without paying for it and walking away are “cheap” (I call that “theft”).

Is there anything worse than being cheap, they seem to ask?

Sure there is.

There’s being abused or abusive, having a terminal disease or watching a loved one suffer with one. There’s being jailed or a criminal. Lots of things.

Does money matter?

Of course it does — especially when you don’t have enough.

Money can make you feel good, but its lack can go beyond the basics of which it deprives us. It can make you feel like an outsider. Hopeless. Unable to succeed.

That’s another direction we go when we talk about “are we poor” at our house. Are we poor? No — we have everything we need and more. Are we rich? Yes. We can afford so many of our wants, we can afford to travel, we have each other, we are safe and have love and soccer teams and hobbies and choir and horseback riding. We are wealthy indeed.

The point of being cheap is not to save money so you can pile it up and smirk about it. The point is not to suffer, which I think is the concern of the critics of the word “cheap.”

The point is to stretch the dollars we have, so we can use them for purposes that make a difference to us. Perhaps it’s my being able to be home so my daughter can have friends over after school. To pursue a hobby. To drive less and live more gently on the earth. To give holiday gifts to children who would have few, and to remember parents who are starting over and would not think of themselves. To contribute to organizations that are making a difference in the lives of those most needy around the world. To live with the mindfulness that allows us to look at the others we meet who live small, who live in an uncool neighborhood, who are single parents, and to smile at them, and greet them like the human beings they are, with caring and respect.

Look down, not up

American culture encourages us to look up at those who have more than we do and turn green with envy.

What if instead we look down, to those who have less? We will become more grateful for what we have, and we can make a difference. If you are fortunate enough to be able to spare $1,000, think about using it to strengthen the world in addition to spending it on your own enjoyment. If you can spare $25, donate to an organization that will leverage your contribution to help more people. If you can spare $5, buy rice and beans or grab some coupons to buy peanut butter to donate to a food bank. If you can’t spare that much, as the song goes, “God bless you,” but perhaps you can stop into a local yarn shop and spend a few minutes knitting an afghan for charity with donated yarn, or take a needy neighbor some vegetables from your garden or some extra soup from your dinner.

Look out and ahead

And of course, given the election season we in the United States are in, to make a difference in our nation by learning responsibly about our candidates’ responses to poverty and voting our conscience, too.

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4 thoughts on “Look down, not up – my poverty manifesto

  1. L'an says:

    Thanks for this post. I think it’s really important to recognize that wealth/poverty is relative, and that perhaps instead of obsessing about the things we can’t do, can’t afford, don’t have, we should think about all the myriad things we *do* have, and that in many cases, the intangible can have value far beyond anything that can be purchased (whether at a store or by way of a plane ticket to an exotic locale.)

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