A week ago on a school field trip, my daughter asked me “Mom, what is poverty?” Surrounded by her classmates about to enter a building, I reached for an immediate, tangible example of lack so I could answer her quickly.
When you’re a single parent who grew up poor, you develop a talent for hiding what you don’t have. The purchases you make reflect your values; the sacrifices you make, your hopes for your child’s future.
I never wore designer clothes. I went to Goodwill with my mom and got psychedelic leftovers from the Haight Ashbury generation. My shoes had hard soles and buckles. I got called Elvis at school for my melon-colored studded high-water bell bottoms. They were nonetheless a favorite because they were made of cotton. I learned the hard way that tight-fitting polyester shirts featuring the set of South Pacific make your skin feel slimy and shouldn’t be worn. It was a trade-off I took pride in, using lack to express my individuality. Over time, I developed my own uniform with natural fibers of muted earth tones, blues and greens. When something really works for me, I buy several pairs of it and consequently years can pass before I update my wardrobe, which saves money.
After all the hazing I got as a child, it was a relief when my daughter was accepted to a Rochester City school where a uniform is required. The permitted pants come in 2-3 different specific colors and the shirts in one color. Someone in administration decided to relax the dress code twice a year and sell multi-colored shirts with the school emblem on them so they would meet the dress code. Buying every color I felt would flatter my daughter became a chosen extravagance, an intentional act I felt would encourage her to be an individual. It was a choice I made that was somewhat wasteful, because though she enjoys variety as I had intended, many of her shirts go unworn.
I asked her, “is there anyone in your class who ONLY wears blue shirts?” She said Yes, Ronald, a boy she’s told me about who’s overweight and probably gets teased. She knew because one day at school the kids talked about it among themselves, who wore the colored shirts and who only had plain.
I told her to go find out what size shirt he wears. She did. For a split second I saw a look cross his face, then he told her.
“Mandy, let’s go through your shirts tomorrow,” I said. “You have two that look almost alike and I never see you wearing them. Let’s find out what size they are and give one to Ronald.”
Poverty is lack, it’s different for everyone. For some, it might be food, for others, education. The only way to really understand poverty is to look at what you have a lot of that someone else might not have access to, and be honest with yourself about how much of it you wouldn’t miss if you gave it away.
In a larger sense, poverty is a condition of human nature. No matter who you are or what you think you’ve got, there’s something you lack, whether you’re willing to admit it to yourself or not.