Think About It, Take Two: July 4th, 2014

 Poverty vs. Privilege

Between the ages of eight and nine, my family lived in Honolulu, Hawaii. It was an unforgettable time period in my life, for many reasons. One little thing I remember is that, for some reason, we did not receive the all of the channels we watched on the mainland. My mother, who, at the time, was devoted to watching telenovelas, did not have access to Telemundo or Univision, so instead of complaining, she made due with Korean and other Asian dramas.

I used to watch them with her, and we sat very close to the television, completely engrossed in the subtitled plots. At a young age, I realized that although there were people who did not look like me or spoke the same language as I did, they still wanted their novelas. I wondered if we were actually that different after all.

One day, I happened to be watching a show with my sister. There was a young girl on screen, who lived in a small room, and seemed to be struggling with food and money. I posed some sort of question to my sister, and she responded, in her typically curt, older sibling voice, with, “She’s poor.” But how can she be poor?, I thought, she has a place to live, and she has clothes and things. I expressed this thought to my sister, and she explained to me that one can still be poor or lacking, and still have certain material things.

 In my naive mind, I thought there were only three socioeconomic statuses one could have: rich, poor, and right in the middle. But having a house, having things and being poor are not mutually exclusive. Poverty is not just how much you have or lack. It’s how you see the world. It’s how you are treated. It’s how you think. It’s how you behave. It’s how you live. Being poor is actually quite complex.

Currently, I’m finishing up a year as an AmeriCorps VISTA. Many people don’t actually know about the AmeriCorps programs, but it’s explained as the Peace Corps of the United States. People serve in communities to try to alleviate poverty, lack of resources and privilege, etc. while living on a wage that is below the poverty line. When I first signed up and heard that I would have to live on less than minimum wage, I thought, “That’s fine. It’s better than nothing.”

The reason why VISTAs live below the poverty line is pretty straightforward: it’s for us to understand what is is like to be poor, and create a sense of equality with the people we are supposed to serve. We are not above them because we do not make more money than them. I thought it made sense, but serving for almost a year, and having many conversations with other VISTAs, I realized that it’s actually kind of ludicrous.

Many of us realized that poverty isn’t something you can just dip your toe in. Yes, many of us struggle to pay bills and loans, many of us have to sign up for SNAP, many of us feel stuck because we just don’t have the funds to do anything. But for a lot of us, that will be temporary. We’ll go on to graduate school, or get federal jobs that pay a decent wage, or do something with the college degrees that we have. Though there are some VISTAs who did grow up poor, and share their stories, very few of us will really know what it’s like to be poor, because we’ve been born and bred into a life a relative privilege.

We may develop some understanding or compassion for those who struggle, but I highly doubt we will have true empathy, because our little (kind of insensitive) tour through the world of the poor was just that: a tour. Even though thousands of us are serving across the United States, even though thousands of us sign up for the program with good intentions, even though sometimes, the things we do during our service year do have an impact and people’s lives improve to some degree, there are still flaws in the system, and we, the VISTAS, are usually not the ones worse off, though we can relate only slightly.

Sometimes I wonder if there can ever really be enough. Can we do enough to actually get rid of all the poverty in the world? I see a man with a sign, presumably asking for help, every day while commuting from work. It’s beyond saddening, because he’s just a person trying to survive. I told myself that I would give him what I had at some point, the small amount of cash I carry, so that I know I helped in some way. I left a dollar one day, and I was relieved. I did it. I helped.

The next day, though, he was still there, with his sign. I felt sadness, frustration, anger. I foolishly believe that my one dollar would make a difference. I mean, perhaps it did, but I realized that my act wasn’t really about that man or his situation. It was about me:  what could I do to help? What could I do stop him from struggling? What could I do to stop feeling bad whenever I saw him? And that realization made me question how and why we go about trying to “help” others, when we can barely understand what they go through.

Poverty is a culture, a mentality and position in life, that is so easy to judge and tear apart, but difficult to live. Even though my “socioeconomic status” has shifted throughout my life, I’ll still have things, both concrete and abstract, that will help me live and navigate my life. Even with good will, volunteering, big donations, successful programs, and all the other measures in place, many of us won’t truly understand what it is like, and we really don’t want to.

To answer my own question: yes. In theory, there are ways to get rid of poverty for good, and make sure people do more than just survive. But living is anything but  theoretical.

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