And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair. ~ Kahlil Gibran

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Thinking About Poverty

I just recently stumbled on a blog about a couple in CA who lived for 30 days on a $1/day per person budget.

I read it, and most of the comments, and was surprised to see that the blog was less about the food choices (or lack of them) that this couple had, and more about how it changed their perception of "poor" folks and how their lives were lived.


I thought about Wendy, who does so well at eating local and making so much of her own food. I thought about how she has been able to break many of the consumer cycles that most of us Americans seem locked into.

I thought about my friend Sunny, who has a family of 5 she supports on one income. She is lucky to have a hunter for a husband, and knowledge of how to butcher animals. She also is lucky (no matter how much she complains) to have a garden that is probably 1/2 acre in size and provides most of their produce needs for the year.

I thought about my Grandfather, who lived through the Great Depression, and his inability to throw anything (no matter how broken and useless) away because he was sure he could either fix it or use the parts for something.

I thought of my Grandmother, and the piles (and Piles....and PILES) of cucumbers she would pickle each year.

And then I thought of something a presumably wise person once said. "You can do anything in one of two ways. With money, or with time."

I started thinking that poverty is more than lack of money. It is a lack of knowledge. It is a lack of time. It is a lack of space.

Being poor in the country is very different from being poor in the city, and it seems that the city is where so many of the poor in this country congregate.

I hate using Sunny as an example, because I don't think of her as poor, but she fits the criteria. She has a family of 5 to feed on one income (and not a very large income, at that). They qualify for WIC and MinnesotaCare (a subsidised health insurance through the state). Their income is such that they are considered "poor" by all the charts and standards of our society.

Yet I think they live a less "frugal" life than we do here at the Barefoot Manor. They live in a 4 bedroom farmhouse that has about 1,000 sq ft more than our humble Barefoot Manor. The girls enjoy dance classes, and they get bi-monthly visits from the Schwans man. Everyone wears cute and fashionable clothes, and the children have plenty of toys, books, and movies. They go on regular camping vacations in the summer. Both Sunny and her hubby pursue their own hobbies (Sunny likes to scrapbook, which can be expensive. Hubby...well, who knows?).

How do they do it, you ask? It is simple. They have the luxury of time, space, and knowledge.

Sunny's family owns several adjacent farms (totalling well over 1,500 acres), and when Grandma and Grandpa downsized to a smaller place on the property, they were offered the big house. Most of their food budget can be used for "luxury" items, because of their large garden and Hubby's great hunting skills. Sunny spends a lot of time canning, freezing, and butchering during the summer and fall months, but she then has the security of knowing that they will never starve. She also cooks a lot of their meals from scratch. Sunny picks up clothes at garage sales and consignment shops, and (since her mother is a seamstress and Sunny is a whiz on the sewing machine) is able to tailor the clothes for her family to fit well and look fashionable. The kids help with the gardening chores and prepping for food preservation. I think they even get involved (in a limited way) when butchering time rolls around. Everyone in the family is a part of every aspect of their lives, and they spend a lot of time together.

If they lived in the city, what would happen?

Simple. They would have to pay rent on a small apt (like they did before they moved out to the farm), paying rent of somewhere between $800/mo -$1200/mo. They wouldn't have land for a large garden, and Sunny and family would no longer be able to do their own butchering, so all their groceries would have to be store bought. I don't know if Sunny would have to go to work, because with 3 kids in daycare working becomes futile, but she would definitely have fewer resources to work with. If she did have to go to work, she would definitely have less time for cooking, sewing, and doing all the little things she does now to really make their $ stretch. Dance class, hobbies, and vacations would go flying out the window. The quality of their meals would go down (you really can't beat homegrown food and game for healthiness). The children would have no place to play. I think that the time spent as a family would fall by the wayside as the struggle of just making it through another day without enough became the focus.

In essence, all the things they do that make their lives special would be lost in the daily grind to just survive. Every moment would be taken up with work to bring in an extra few dollars. Their priorities would change.

That makes me sad.

I think about how this applies to many families I know. Mine, for example. I work. I don't even work a LOT. Even with two jobs, I figure I have a lot of time when I am home. But my work schedule interferes with my ability to provide for my family the way Sunny does. Oh, I bring in $$, but that is usually eaten up with all the things that I "need" to make life easier. I can't have a large garden, I don't have the time for it. I have no knowledge of butchering (that's why I have a Daddy and a Brother), and Mr. Barefoot doesn't hunt anyway. Too often, when supper time rolls around, I have not taken the time to prepare a home cooked meal, and we end up with the same old meat and potatoes with a canned veggie type thing. It is just too easy to fall back on that.

The saddest part is the Barefoot Family isn't even poor. Not really. I may feel that way sometimes when I watch too much TV, but the truth is that we are not going to be hungry any time soon. I don't have to worry that we will be freezing and without shelter this winter. Life is really good for us, comparatively speaking.

Anyway, I don't have any solutions. I don't even really have a problem to find a solution to. There will always be folks who are "poor", just as there will always be folks who have more and folks who have the most. Would it make the lives of the "city poor" better to move out to the country? Probably not too much. It doesn't do any good to have resources if you don't know how to use them. A packet of seeds is cheap, but if you can't afford the dirt to plant them in and your time is spent in earning enough $ to pay your rent instead of tending those seeds, they do you no good.

I just can't help thinking that if people thought more about their lives, they would be able to make changes. Too often, the ability to think is smothered by the need to get through another day of mindless routine to acquire the things that society dictates we must have in order to be happy and fulfilled.

Of course, what frightens me the most is the possibility that even if people thought about things they wouldn't care.


Fr. Peter Doodes said...

Many years ago, our son was at a school that was attended by some very rich families indeed.

We were going off for the summer holiday and our then ten year old son was talking to a friend about their holidays.

His friend asked what we were doing and where we were going.

He looked sad when he heard that we were going camping and apart from the ferry to France we had no idea where we were going. He was told that we just bought a copy of a French paper and went to where the sun was shining.

His comment still rings in my ears.

"What an adventure. You know, its no fun being rich, there is never anything to look forward to".

As you said barefoot

'Too often, the ability to think is smothered by the need to get through another day of mindless routine to acquire the things that society dictates we must have in order to be happy and fulfilled'.

The 'simple' things in life are the most precious.

Lisa said...

You hear endlessly about the "cycle of poverty."

When one generation (typically in the city) spends all of their time struggling to survive (or learning how to milk the system,) they have children who grow up without much in the way of positive role models. There are few books or newspapers around the house, they don't experience Mom or Dad getting up regularly to go to work or to school to improve themselves, etc.

So the children spend their adult life much as their parents did... struggling with no light at the end of the tunnel.

You are so right, moving the struggling poor out of the city to the country wouldn't improve their lives much without the knowledge to grow food, build things they need, etc.

RuthieJ said...

A very thoughtful post Barefoot. I'm glad I have as much knowledge as I do about gardening, cooking and hunting. Growing up in a very small farming community, everyone had gardens and we almost never went out to eat. We were poor but we never knew it--we never went hungry or without shoes. We had a big garden and even though my mom grew up in Chicago she learned how to do preserving and fix stuff and keep everything going at home. So where am I going with this story? Nowhere I guess, I'm just glad that I know I will still be able to take care of "us" should one of us (God forbid!) lose a job in these difficult economic times--and thanks to my mom and dad for teaching me how to do things for myself!

Mon said...

Thoughtful post.

I hope to instill that desire for simplicity in my little one.

I see every day, family, friends, neighbours, striving for more stuff. I often think it's habit. Unconscious living. What matters is we change ourselves, and hope it ripples out into the world.