The Unbearable Heftiness of Poverty

I’ve been writing about a local working poor woman, Susan, and since I first encountered her in early December, every day is a new challenge. Every day I get slightly more annoyed (I’m being honest!) and I just want to find a way to blame her, or put off her requests hoping she’ll find another way. I hate asking people to give me money to give to someone they don’t know. I hate pleading her case to people who are suspicious.

Why do I feel like this? Am I a bad person?


I’m no saint. But I think it has more to do with the difficulty we have in society in general comprehending the multiple dimensions of poverty.

A quick recap:

Susan is a mother of two young boys, recently transitioned into an apartment from a motel, one son was hospitalized this month for flu, followed by his younger brother getting sick. She has no car. She has little in the way of public transit options. She gets some help with food stamps and some rental assistance. She works full time. She’s desperately waiting for a tax refund to give her a little cash to get right side up.

And now her mother has died.

On top of it all-being a half step away from homelessness, struggling to care for her kids, working…her mother who has been in a coma for some time, just died. She lived in Savannah, about 4 hours away.

Susan can’t go to be with her mother; she has too much precariousness in her life to go on a trip. She didn’t get to say goodbye to her mother. Her mother died without any family there with her.

It’s 2020 and people in the richest country to ever exist can’t spend the last minutes of a loved one's life with them because of poverty. If she did go, Susan would be homeless by the time she got back from the funeral. Imagine! Every dime counts. I’ve commented on how she is keenly aware of the difference between what she asks for and what I give her, even if it’s in her "benefit."

Every damn dime.

Her sister is on the way to Savannah. From Houston. By car. Because she can’t afford a plane ticket. The distance from Houston to Savannah is 966 miles, or 14 hours. Without traffic, which is almost certainly guaranteed to hinder her travels anywhere in North America.

Think about what this does to the psyche! How constant threats of collapse hang over you. How the smallest things, like a son’s school field trip, can throw your budget off. That was eleven dollars.

Every damn dime.

And this brings me back to my response; surely she could have planned for this. Surely she had a chance to prepare for her mother’s death. Why doesn’t her sister have a plan in place? Why do they insist on being poor?

This is an automated response that is part of my deep need to "solve." I want to solve the problem and part of that is finding the root of the problem. And if it were just a series of bad decisions and irresponsibilities on her part, that would be easy. But the root of this problem is tangled and messy. It’s deeply set in the soil of racism, privilege, and generational struggle.

I value the power of identifying the root cause of issues, it’s served me well. But it’s not always as easy to discern in every situation. Our society is fundamentally broken, and until we sit down and face the tangled ball of roots that have planted us there, we will not change. It’s a lot of work. It will require a lot of cooperation. We will make mistakes, but if we are truly committed we will repair the damage done.

Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God. — Proverbs 14:31, NIV