Why I Am Fortunate to Have Been Raised in Poverty
A short time ago, I became eligible for my Covid vaccine. I embraced the chance. I was never worried about catching Covid, or dying from it. I am old enough to know death is always around the corner. I am also fortunate to have had such a wealth of experiences in life that I probably have used up other people’s quotas of pleasure, as well.
The Covid vaccine works by injecting a small quantity of dead Covid-19 virus into your body. Your immune system rushes to repel the intruders and, over the course of attacking these invaders, builds up antibodies. For me, that is the way life works. You deal with welcome visitors and events every day, but you also deal with unwelcome experiences. Those unwelcome ones teach you more and prepare you more thoroughly for life than the pleasurable events.
If I wanted to approach life pessimistically, I could complain about how inequitable life had been to me as a child. Extreme poverty, social isolation, lack of opportunity, prejudice… all the common complaints of those people who view themselves as poor and as victims. But none of that is true. I was blessed to have been raised in a radically impoverished environment. I believe that I have been more fortunate than most people raised in a middle-class or upper-class community.
My claims likely will arouse the ire of those who believe that everyone who is poor is there due to circumstances beyond their control, that everyone who lives in poverty wants to remove himself from that experience or that everyone even views poverty as an undesirable condition. Let them be upset! Sanctimony does not bring a person closer to understanding and paternal attitudes about others do very little to heal any chasms that exist.
In truth, I am one of the lucky hundreds of millions in the western world who are defined by our income, rather than who we are. If we have a lack of material wealth, relative to an arbitrary standard of poverty, we are not just branded as “poor,” but we are branded as being part of a lower socio-economic class. In other words, lack of money has also relegated us to a lower social echelon, by virtue of that economic paucity. It is a condescending phrase borne of a condescending attitude.
Live the life before you critique!
My parents struggled to earn the money they needed to raise their family, but they never failed to keep us in clothes, living under a roof, eating a meal. That made us richer, in money, than many others in this world. However, we had advantages that many other children desperately need. Our parents instilled – no, drilled – in us the belief that a lack of knowledge, a lack of morality and a lack of curiosity were far more insidious symptoms of true poverty than a lack of cash could ever represent. That made us richer than the wealthiest children raised without intellectual and ethical curiosity and conviction to act on those values.
Still, I was raised in a two hundred sixty square foot house, built from recovered lumber from an old garage, without heat. Six of us lived in that tiny space. Our family’s income never exceeded $1,500 in a year (slightly over $9,000 in today’s dollars) and averaged under $900. One room of the house had no floor. We had no television for the first eleven years of my life. Most times, we had no car, but lived in the country. Not one of us ever had a single piece of new clothing. We had no indoor plumbing and no source of running water. If we got sick, we recovered or we did not: there was absolutely no commercial medication; just the natural remedies that grew around us. The list of supposed markers of poverty were everywhere, but, still, I was not poor in social status or in the wealth of experiences.
My life was a Huck Finn/Tom Sawyer existence. Because we had nothing, we found excitement and joy in the smallest of things: spring runoff water, playing cricket with tin cans and sticks or building a helicopter with old pieces of metal, car seats, wood and branches. Because we had nothing we needed to improvise and create and, from that, I have learned extensive lessons in all the trades and crafts.
Not having wealth and living in a community that had only a modestly higher standard of living than we did, we learned to rely, not on money, but on knowledge and ability. A lowly farmer can fix any piece of equipment or create a tool where none exists, yet he is regarded as of a lower class when his ability actually is superior to most.
While the stress of living hand-to-mouth can be immense and lead to family conflict, it also strengthens bonds by compelling people to work together to achieve a goal. From that joint effort arises camaraderie and from that camaraderie grows real friendships and the willingness to overlook differences and find commonality.
How many of the wealthy could survive a week of pure income hardship; not relative, but pure? Go without even one meal. Do without a vehicle or the money to pay for gas. Have to scavenge for wild plants for your vegetable part of the meal? Wear clothes worn by strangers until they were threadbare then handed off to the unfortunates? Even do without telephone, Internet or television for only a day or so? Walk to work in the snow, slush and rain because he or she could not afford the luxury of public transportation?
The peculiar result of living every moment without the supposed security of money accomplishes several things. First, it forces independence and self-reliance on an individual. It fosters creativity as we struggle to survive. And, oddly, it develops a perverse pride in many of us, as we recognize that it is not we who are poor in many ways: it is the wealthy who lack the breadth and depth of experience that our lives cultivate. Indeed, more than a few of us actually look down on the rich, because they are, in our eyes, weakened by their lavish lifestyles.
We can survive in the harshest of conditions but that also means that we can embrace the meagre pleasures that come our way. Yes, most of us would welcome the money, but we do not need it. We have intelligence that comes from living life day-to-day.
Most of us have learned to understand others and see their plight sympathetically. That holds true for how we view the rich. We can see that they, too, have to struggle. But we also see that it is a choice for them and not a choice for us. We have learned the value of the moment. We have learned the value of other people. We have learned to lend a helping hand, instead of a boot to the face of people near us, who are attempting to keep themselves from drowning in economic hardship. We understand, because we have been through it.
It is true that poverty is not a disease or a virus, but it is a threat, and my dose of poverty has helped immunize me against the risk it poses. I have gained. I have learned to respect others and treat them fairly. I have learned that no person is inferior because of income or social status. I have learned generosity of spirit. I have learned self-reliance. I have learned the value of every moment in the world around me. I have learned that, had I been raised in an economically affluent lifestyle, I likely would not have had the advantage of experiencing these lessons so deeply. So, yes, I am one of the fortunate people who was raised in poverty, and for that, I am richer.
R F (Robert) Lee has written a biography on the impact of poverty on one family (What We Have Lost) revealing many unanticipated consequences and effects of low income. Several of his blogs discuss how poverty shapes one’s life and looks at solutions. To find out more, visit his website at http://www.robertflee.com.
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