Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Poverty Puzzle

My declining health has put us in a new and unfamiliar situation.  For the first time in our lives we are having to hire household help.  Our employed caregivers are only in our home for five hours each day because most of the time we can manage on our own,  But it’s been a learning experience for us in many ways.

Our caregivers are women, in their early 20’s or middle aged, and almost all of them are west African immigrants.  Some came to the States as children and others are more recent arrivals.  Quite a few are preparing for, or currently enrolled in, higher education, especially in nursing or social work.

They’ve given us a different outlook on the problems of poverty.  Listening to their stories, we learn how difficult it is for a single mother to raise four children by herself on minimum wage; the life-long effects of a chaotic childhood; the dire results of  disasterous marriages and unexpected pregnancies; the stresses of being profiled by police; the struggle to find the money to pay off a traffic ticket or to save for college; the trick to saving your job when your car has been totaled!  It’s the “personal and underside” of poverty that we are not used to seeing or hearing about.

It reminds me of a jigsaw puzzle my sister once had.  It was circle-shaped and on the top side showed a lovely nature picture of flowers and trees.  That same picture appeared on the back side of the puzzle, too, but at a 90 degree angle from the front!  So maintaining the proper perspective was essential to working out the puzzle.

Most of us who are fairly comfortable financially spend our time looking at the top of the poverty puzzle.  We probably agree with my nephew’s analysis when he was working with a home repair ministry in a poor section of a big city.  “The problem with poor people,” he would say,”is that they have no money!”  So, staring at the top side of the poverty puzzle, we decide the solution is that the poor should “get a job”, “stop buying alcohol and junk food”, “go to college and get a better education”, “stop having so many children”, and on and on with shallow advice.

However, there is another side to the problem of poverty: the underside of the puzzle where the angles of reality’s picture run differently than on the top side.  The poor are more familiar with this view where a dark skin is the same as a black mark; where prejudices and unwritten rules limit all available opportunities; where, despite many laws, housing, education, health care, and voting rights are limited.  The picture is not as pretty on the underside because it is in black and white.  White is considered normal and black is out of place.

One of the major differences between these two worlds is in what each values.  The economy of the wealthy on the top side of the puzzle counts value only in dollars and cents,  Anything that cannot be measured in dollar signs is not considered valuable.  Only money counts.

But the underside of the puzzle, the world of the poor, considers value in a different way.  There, compassion, community, and cooperation are as important as dollars and cents. Caring for one another, working together, and forming supportive networks is a kind of wealth they understand.  This is the currency that has enabled the poor to survive when money is scarce or absent.

I asked one of our hired helpers why so many of them from west Africa were attracted to such caregiving work.  She replied,” That’s what we do in our home country. We take care of our sick or aged family members in our homes.”  Community, compassion, and cooperation at work.

Sometimes this type of currency is forged into crime, violence or intoxicants because it, too, can be contaminated with the worship of money.  This economy of three Cs is mostly ignored by those caught up in the dollars and cents value system.

However, community, compassion and cooperation is a currency practiced worldwide wherever money is scarce.  People learn to care for others, especially family and neighbors.  They work together to solve problems and form communities from which any can draw help when needed.  Could it solve the poverty puzzle if we all could learn to value both systems?