Poverty and privilege: Blog Action Day 2008

Poverty: n. the state or condition of being poor; lack of the means of providing material needs or comforts; insufficiency.

Privilege: n. a special advantage, immunity, right or benefit granted to or enjoyed by an individual or class.

Today is Blog Action Day, where thousands of bloggers around the globe are writing about one subject, poverty.  And wouldn’t you know, poverty is a P word.

The poverty threshold is the minimum level of income deemed necessary to achieve an adequate standard of living in a given country – the minimum expenditure needed to maintain a tolerable life.. In the US this is significantly higher than in developing countries. Determining the poverty line is usually done by finding the total cost of all the essential resources that an average human adult consumes in one year, and adjusting that as additional members of the family are included.

In 2008 you’re living in poverty if you’re:

  • a single adult with an income of less than $10,400,
  • a couple with less than 14,000,
  • a family of four with less than $21,200

A couple of observations.

First, $10,400 is way way way too low. Heck, you can easily spend $10,000 a year for health insurance alone! Which is why nearly 50 million Americans don’t have it. In Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich barely survives as a minimum-wage or low-level unskilled worker (waitresss, house cleaner, Wal-Mart “associate” etc). And she allowed herself the luxury of using the car she already owned and keeping her health insurance policy in force outside the rules of her self-imposed scenario. The book will open your eyes.

Second, when you’re living on the very edge of solvency despite working 40 hours a work, the slightest wrinkle (an accident, an illness, a layoff, a rent increase, a car problem, gas price hikes) in the flimsy fabric of your life can cause a fatal rip. It’s scary and extremely stressful. I see this at the local family shelter where I work a shift every February. I meet people who are as smart and capable as I am, who encountered such a wrinkle but lacked a backup system to help them through it.

Sure, sometimes drugs and alcohol are involved, but the “pain-free” world of addiction is what many turn to when they don’t have the education or training or family support that gives the rest of us a sense of hope and possibility.

In the past few years (since separating from my ex), I’ve seen my financial resources dwindle – and in the past couple of weeks I’ve seen my savings shrivel. But I still have a cozy home, a modest income from my writing, and a sense that I will weather this even if I have to sell my house (at what will surely be a loss). If worse comes to worse I’ll move in with my sister, or with a friend, or even with one of my adult kids. It won’t be ideal, but I have a safety net.

Which is where privilege comes in. By sheer luck, karma, coincidence, happenstance, I was born Caucasian, healthy and whole, to parents who were well-educated, loving, sane, capable and responsible, who themselves, by sheer happenstance, were born to similarly endowed parents.

Sure, they worked hard so they could provide me with all I needed for a successful launch into adulthood. And I did the same for my kids.

None of us have been wealthy, but we’ve been comfortable. We have led privileged lives.

But it could have been otherwise. I could have been born in sub-Saharan Africa to a single mother with AIDs. I could have been born blind to an illiterate woman in Cambodia who lost her arms to a land-mine. I could have been born a coal-miner’s daughter in Appalachia without any singing ability.

That’s why it fries me when conservatives talk about the “self-made man” and how the poor should just pull up their socks and get their financial shit together. When you’re living on quicksand, it’s very hard to do.

Last year our minister, Mark, shared a story about taking his kids to the Oregon dunes. His 7-year-old son Miles, was having a blast, clambering up and down the sand-hills. At one point he was attempting a particularly steep hill but slipped backwards as fast as he climbed upwards. Mark got below him on the hill and thrust his arm deep into the sand which created a solid base unbeknownst to Miles.  When his foot hit that base he got the foundation he needed to complete the climb to the top.

The boy was very proud that “I did it myself” – totally unaware that it was his dad’s invisible support that made the ascent possible.

The first step in addressing poverty is to become aware of how privileged most of us are, and how much we take granted that we simply inherited by being born in America in the 20th century.

Today, what I’m doing about poverty is writing this post and including a link to 88 things you can do about poverty. Tomorrow I’m making calls for the Obama campaign.  Join me.

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2 responses to “Poverty and privilege: Blog Action Day 2008

  1. Got to admit that running along the ragged edge of the poverty level isn’t an easy place to live. I figure that by next year when the cost of my health insurance goes up another $40 like last year, my car insurance increases because of my age (in spite of a spotless driving record), the new owners of the apt. complex where I live decide to raise the rent again (it went up $50 a month in September), the cost of food reaches the place where I will have to begin to choose between eating and taking my meds, life will get very tough. Now all I hope is that I don’t live long enough to outlast my small savings.
    My pension seems safe but that could disappear tomorrow if the stock market keeps yo-yoing up and down several hundred points every day. If Medicare costs go over $100 a month next year, I’m going to be elegible for Section 8, which will take 12 to 18 months to kick in.
    At 6 years of age in 1930 when my dad went broke, I wasn’t aware of how bad it was, but I sure am feeling it now.
    One can only pray that Barack Obama is elected and has the wisdom and stones to be the kind of president FDR was in my childhood. He has a cool head and a keen mind with the ability to overcome. I’m still hoping the Universe is friendly!
    Keep the faith and somebody pat that pup on the head and tell him “good dog!”

  2. It’s the shits, Mary…
    Have you gone down to the Dem HQ and offered to make calls for Jeff Merkley?
    Obama will win in Oregon, but getting Merkley in could make a major difference in getting our agenda passed in the Senate.