RICHARDSON: What does it mean to be poor?

December 8, 2013 

Hi, I’m Albert Aber. I’m a 42-year-old, white, college educated computer programmer. I worked for the same company for 20 years until four months ago. I’m unemployed now and have not been able to find work. My $350 a week unemployment compensation just ran out.

It’s a good thing my wife, Ann, holds down a $9-an-hour receptionist position at the hospital, but they’ve been cutting back and her job could disappear any day.

We’ve got three kids, Alice, 16; Al Jr., 10 and Andy, who is 6. And there is another little detail. Alice is pregnant, and instead of baby-sitting her siblings, she often sneaks off to be with her baby’s daddy.

I’m really getting stressed. Our credit cards are maxed out. Though my wife’s job offers health insurance, we can only afford to cover her; me and the kids are on our own. Al and Andy are constantly jumping off something. And then there’s Alice. What are we going to do when the baby comes? Her baby daddy’s family is in the same sinking boat we are. I’m watching my family quickly fall out of the middle class into abject poverty. I’m looking for work every day, but all I hear is, “you’re overqualified.” I even got that response from a fast food joint.

I never thought I would have to apply for assistance -- food stamps, Medicaid and every voucher from clothes to food I could find. It’s embarrassing. There’s no dignity left after you stand before a person who’s supposed to be helping you, look right through you. All that to get the same answer, “No.”

Though we are a family of five, we make too much money, $15,888, to qualify for Medicaid. Way too much money. A family of three can’t make more than $7,589 to qualify in Georgia. Thank God we’re not in Texas where the limit is less than $4,000.

Too little income and too many bills. The bank is ready to pounce and repo our car if we miss a payment and the mortgage company is ready to kick us out in the street for any hiccup. And they seem to enjoy issuing threats. People look at us as if we are the scourge of society when we spend what food stamps we have at the grocery store. They think we’re the ones who brought the economy to its knees.

Are they blaming the same bankers who were deemed “too big to fail?” The same Wall Street types who park their helicopters on the roofs of their skyscrapers? Of course not. While they eat caviar, we’re cussed because we can buy canned meat and chips with food stamps. And we are fairly lucky compared to many of the people I stand in social services lines with. Some of the elderly have critical choices to make -- food or medicine.

And just when you stop and catch your breath after making a critical payment, a knock comes at the door. There stands an officer of the law telling you your two boys are in custody because big sister snuck out to be with her sperm-donor boyfriend.

OK, I’m not Al, at least not now. But I was Tuesday. I participated in an poverty simulation exercise sponsored by the United Way of Central Georgia’s Promise Neighborhood Commission. Everyone who thinks those living in poverty are no account, lazy, shiftless, deadbeats, should challenge their notions by taking part in the next simulation. As we were reminded, it’s a simulation. It’s not a game.

It’s hard to believe that within the simulation’s three-hour period you can be made to feel the pressures and stresses that many people in our community go through trying to make ends meet. For them, it’s no simulation and certainly not a game.

Their world is full of payday predators and other “businesses” who make their living riding the backs of the poor. As retired Maj. Gen. Robert McMahon, one of the participants, said, “We have people, who, for no fault of their own, have to trade long-term success for short-term survival.”

Next week: Poor, what does it mean? Part II.

Charles E. Richardson is The Telegraph’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at 478-744-4342 or via email at crichardson@macon.com. Tweet@crichard1020.

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