RICHARDSON: To be poor” Part II

December 15, 2013 

It’s easy to pick on poor folks. It’s easy to point at and snicker and label them shiftless, lazy and food stamp cheats. Hardly a day goes by when they’re not blamed for their own plight, and the old axiom “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” slips from someone’s mouth.

But do those of us who have a steady income with a good job really know what it’s like to be poor? Some of us do. That’s the way we grew up. But even then, as children, we didn’t know we were poor.

Contrary to popular belief, living on food stamps is no -- pardon the pun -- piece of cake. In Georgia, a food stamp recipient receives $135.90 in food stamps monthly, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. That’s $4.35 a day. And there are 37 states that give less. Another myth is that the poor sit around all day waiting on a check. If they did that, they would die. Most of our poor work.

Being poor means always having to keep multiple balls in the air, from rent or mortgage to utilities to transportation. Remember the old calculation that you shouldn’t pay more than 30 percent of your income on housing? Throw that out the bathroom window. According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, almost 50 percent of renters pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing. Twenty-eight percent pay more than half their income. And we wonder why fast-food workers are picketing for higher wages?

We may try to ignore them, but the poor are all around us. In Macon’s Promise Neighborhood, the poverty rate is 64 percent. The Promise Neighborhood includes a large swath of south Macon. In that area, more than 35 percent of the households are led by single females and 18 percent are led by grandparents. Nineteen percent of 16- to 19-year-old males are neither working or in school, and that leads to the violent crime rate in Macon that’s twice the national average.

I was reading one of the handouts included in a package of material we were given after participating in a poverty simulation sponsored by United Way. It lists a number of “What is it like to be poor” examples. Of the list of 14 examples, a couple really got to me:

• Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually stupid.

• Being poor is people who have never been poor wondering why you choose to be poor.

Those two statements were a wake-up moment for me. I grew up in the projects of South Central Los Angeles and Watts. Both my parents worked. We never had an abundance, but I don’t remember a moment of hunger. I was oblivious to the world as a child.

I didn’t know why my pleas in the grocery store went unanswered or why my parents left me in the car as they shopped. I know now, and that was when a gallon of milk was 49 cents. Children today are bombarded with commercials for every sort of toy and device, particularly around Christmas. Even poor parents want to give their kids a sense of normalcy and will sacrifice to try to make it so, but don’t let any one of the balls in the air drop.

When life happens, as it invariably does, the balance of a poor person’s universe is knocked off kilter. Easy to do when, from month to month, they’re robbing Peter to pay Paul. It can be anything -- a child gets sick, the cheap car breaks down, a check comes late or the no-account baby’s daddy doesn’t deliver the child support check on schedule. How do you climb out of the labyrinth when you’re too busy trying to survive?

So the next time you’re in line behind someone paying with food stamps, instead of examining their cart to see what they’re buying, understand they are doing the best they know how to make it to the next day.

All the poor want is a little help, human decency and respect, something that is in shorter supply than resources at the end of the month.

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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