We all think we know poverty. We think the concept is easy. But poverty is trickier and more complex than most people think. It’s actually more illusive than we imagine it is. There are a two hidden truths about poverty that allow it to deceive us. The first is that most of it is invisible. You may think that statement to be absurd. And I can understand why you would. How can it be invisible? We all see poverty every day. We see homeless people on the street. Is that not poverty? Yes, of course it is poverty. But what most people do not realize is that it is just the tip of the iceberg. Like an iceberg, most of the poverty in our society is not visible. It is below the surface. If you do not look for it, you will not see it. The Shriver Report gives us a clear view of what poverty really looks like. It states that half of all Americans will spend at least a few months churning into and out of poverty. Decades ago, “poverty in America” came with images of poor children in Appalachian shacks and inner-city alleys. Today, the iconic image of the economically insecure American is a working mother rushing to get ready in the morning, brushing her kid’s hair with one hand and doling out medication to her aging mother with the other. Poverty does not always take the form we tend to envision. It is your neighbor. It is the mother of the children your kids play with at the park. It is the cashier at Walmart or Target who smiles at you while you are paying and asks you how your day is going. Like the underside of the iceberg, most of it is not visible. We see it every day, and we do not realize it.
The second hidden truth is that the government does not give us a true picture of poverty. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 38.1 million people in the USA lived in poverty in 2018. But that number is misleading. In fact, it is greatly flawed. According to Government Poverty Guidelines, the Single Person Federal Poverty Line is $12, 760. If you earn less than that, you are considered impoverished. For a family of 4, it is $26, 200. These numbers are not even close to being realistic. The government is behind the times. According to the 2014 Shriver Report, in the USA there were 100 million people, or roughly 1 in 3 Americans, living in poverty or on the brink of it. These Americans are all on shaky ground. The report defines the “Brink of Poverty” as “less than 200% of the federal poverty line, or about $47,000 per year for a family of 4”. The problem with the government’s poverty line, people need to earn 200% of it to make ends meet. In other words, to pay their bills. It is literally half the amount it should be.
Because of poverty, a huge portion of our country lives one single incident (doctors bill, late paycheck, broken-down car, etc.) away from economic ruin. In his book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal, Senator Ben Sasse[i] likens the situation to driving down a road with no shoulder.
“It’s worse to make a mistake without a shoulder than with one. If you are driving down a road with rumble strips and a big shoulder, you can drive a bit more casually. If you drift too far to one side, you are alerted to it, and there’s time to adjust. No problem. But the same careless driving on a steep road with no guardrail, shoulder, or rumble strip can be deadly. To extend the metaphor: Life is smoother and safer when you have some shoulder to work with. If you do, a bad decision, an error in judgment, or a moral lapse means merely that you have a learning opportunity. If you don’t, the same mistake means hitting the wall or going over the cliff.”
For many of us, this shoulder is always there. We can navigate life much more safely than those who are in impoverished situations. We have Social Capital, networks of family, friends, coworkers, and others that help keep us safe. People and networks who can be of assistance if things go wrong. Not everyone is so fortunate. Social Capital is the shoulder on the road. This is the point that Senator Sasse is making with his analogy. Social Capital is what protects us if something in life goes astray. But not for those on the brink of poverty. Their Social Capital is either spent, or barely existed in the first place.
I am currently the President of a local charity in my community, The SCYC (Santa Claus Yacht Club). We work with families in the area, mainly through the elementary schools, who are struggling and need help. We provide food and gift cards to help them get through the holiday break each December. The kids do not receive school meals during the two-week break. The parents must make up for these meals, and it puts a larger strain on their already difficult financial situation. Our goal is to help alleviate this problem in our community. By providing food for the break, we are widening the shoulder on the road. The food is distributed through an event we call our Annual Food Drop. Our members hand out the food, and provide hats, gloves, books, and some toys for the kids. We interact. We provide a network event once a year that widens the shoulder for these families. The families look forward to it, and so do our members.
We raise money through fundraisers throughout the year. These fundraisers are themselves builders of Social Capital. The events are almost always large social gatherings in a bar or restaurant. We use raffles, door admission, and auctions to raise our funds for the charity. People from the community attend and interact. We also use the opportunity to discuss our mission and inform our attendees of the hidden effects of poverty.
So get out there, get involved! Fight the hidden poverty in your community! Remember, it is right in front of your eyes. You just have to look. There are plenty of organizations in every community that are widening the shoulder for someone who needs it. They would all welcome the help. If you live in or near Alexandria, VA, check out the SCYC. Like most small charities, we can always use more support. The best part is, when you help someone else, you by default help yourself. It is amazing how much better our own self-esteem and outlook on life becomes when we help others. It is the truly greatest win/win situation.
[i] This is in no way an endorsement of any political party or ideology. It is merely a reference to a very insightful and useful analogy.