Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Living in Poverty ... on Purpose

I got this as a Christmas letter; it is written by a homeschooling friend named Erin Schmidt.

“As we mentioned in last year’s Christmas letter, in hopes of understanding poverty better, we planned to experience it by living at the poverty level ($21,000 for a family of 4) in 2008. The year is almost over, we’ve managed to stick with it, have learned a lot and would like to share some of our experience with you.

Our poverty experiment turned into more of a reality when Dave was laid-off this spring. We experienced the stress of not having health insurance, how much red-tape and time it takes to obtain it – and how expensive it is to simply “continue coverage” through Cobra - $900/month for our very healthy family – or over half of our monthly poverty-level budget. We had our first ER visit – the bill for a 2 minute glue job on a cut totaled $1,800 (luckily still insured). Erin needed some meds which cost us $100 (being uninsured) – whereas her Dad got the same meds for $5 with his insurance. A pharmacist told us that folks without insurance pay a premium amount to make up for the loss incurred by the insurance company’s low rates. We are now aware of the hardships placed upon a person living paycheck to paycheck who needs medicines and/or medical assistance. We’ve become resourceful. When Lucy had a big gash above her eye, we said many prayers, sealed it up with steri-strips and avoided the ER completely.

When you’re living in poverty, it’s doesn’t take much set you back to a point that is very hard to recover from. Often, there's barely enough money to cover your basic needs and little to none is left for any accidents or savings. For us, the unexpected included a traffic violation, a parking ticket, medical bills, and damage to our van. Many things are put on hold longer than they should – like a brake job on the van, trips to the dentist, eye doctor, annual physical, fixing the vacuum cleaner, etc. These things usually end up haunting you in the end – that brake job that you put on hold due to finances, could end up costing you an accident in the future that could cost much more than the brake job. The poor are sometimes viewed as “lazy” or “irresponsible” – for some, this may be true – but most are likely dealing with only the most urgent needs, and “just keeping their head above water”.

To achieve our poverty level budget, we had to cut out all extras: no eating out (bummer), eating cheap food (hello Aldi), no treats (pop, sweets, gum, juice, beer), learned to can abundant food (jellies & pickles), home hair cuts (yikes), no vacation bible school, swim lessons, sports, music lessons, summer camps, trips to the swimming pool, (sigh), no summer vacation (sob, that’s the highlight of our year), no garage sales (Erin’s favorite hobby), no field trips/outings that cost money (darn), no renewing memberships (Costco, adoption & homeschool support groups, science city, etc), no babysitters (good-bye date nights), no coffee shop visits (a weekend favorite). We tried to keep our energy bills minimal by keeping our house cold in the winter and hot in the summer. The combination of an uncomfortable house and of not having creature comforts made it awkward having friends over and made us feel less hospitable. We calculated the cost to travel (using $.42/mile to include gas & wear/tear) and were amazed how quickly it adds up - a round-trip to the suburbs can quickly add up to $20. We only traveled to see our family when something big was happening this year. Needless to say, it would be easy to get depressed if you didn’t see an end to it. Our situation is different - yet we still had these feelings occasionally.

Poverty is not just about money. We began learning about poverty by reading A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne. She defines poverty as a lack of resources: relational, spiritual, physical, mental, emotional, financial, etc. We experienced financial poverty only; had we been lacking other resources, it would have been a very tough year for us.

Through the year we’ve been trying to be with the poor, to the extent we can by working among the poor at soup kitchens and food pantries, attending discussion groups, learning from those who work directly with the poor, and talking to people on the street that ask for money. It helped soften our hearts, wash away our quick judgments, and recognize that these people are human and like all of us, they have a life story. Our Catholic Worker friends introduced us to the term, “personalism” – which loosely means to make society’s problems your problems or to take on, in some personal way, someone else’s problem and help them work it out – to help work for justice.

Our experience was just an attempt to understand. It’s impossible to replicate a poverty situation, and we acknowledge that we didn’t and couldn’t come close to fully experiencing it. The year was productive though, and we’re glad that we saw it through. We learned that we can live with less. We realize that we were lucky in that we didn’t have any major issues, medical conditions, accidents or other things happen this year. We also have a greater awareness and appreciation for the resources we do have – our family and upbringing, our education, our values, good health and intellect. Thanks to those of you who inquired about our journey throughout the year. It was a year of growth, learning, understanding, and compassion. If this has sparked your interest, you should try it for 3 months, 6 months, or a year!”

Does anyone know of any good blogs of families who are also living at poverty level, either by choice or not? Let me know in the comments section.

Also, do you think YOU could do this? I know I COULD, but WOULD I? It would be a great lesson for the kids, and we could sure pay off our house a lot faster if we put the “extra” money toward that instead of fast food and a toasty-warm house in the winter.
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