By Anjanette Barr
In 2019, one in six children in the United States lived below the poverty line. A third of the people experiencing poverty in this country right now are under eighteen years old, and this sad reality is not a new problem for American children.
I know, because I was one of them.
My single mother utilized every form of aid she could qualify for to provide for us and maintain as much normalcy in our lives as possible. We were on state health insurance, WIC, and received assistance several times from places like Catholic Charities and The Salvation Army to keep the lights on and make house payments.
My mother did what was necessary to keep us safe and fed, but ours wasn’t a happy home. She didn’t always accept charity well. She sometimes seemed ungrateful, and she was persistently negative. I was often bitter about this as a teenager, especially when it was a friend or my church that offered her the helping hand. I was embarrassed that we didn’t have much to show for all the help we were getting, and that my mother wasn’t jumping through hoops to gratify our donors.
That bitterness was tempered with humility as I grew older and became the recipient of charity myself. I went to a private Christian high school on scholarship, and even though we had uniforms, and I was very comfortable socially, I stood out as being from a different demographic than the other students. One day early in my time there, I was called to the office and given a big black trash bag full of used clothing from an anonymous donor. That moment was a defining one for me in two ways:
One, it shattered the illusion that I was blending in. I didn’t think about our poverty most days while away from home. But others obviously did, and that was embarrassing. Two, it showed me that charity is sometimes more taxing for the recipient than for the giver. It wasn’t the last time that I’d experience the emotional toll to be paid for “free” gifts.
Poverty does things to a person’s psyche that are often overlooked by those on the outside or passed off as dysfunction rather than anguish. When my mother seemed discouraged even after we were thrown a lifeline, it’s because she was. True, she was able to breathe with her head above water for that one moment. She hadn’t drowned, but what about tomorrow’s dangers? There are more ways than one to die in tumultuous waters.
For those in poverty, gratitude is complicated because it’s tainted by shame. Society expects us to survive by merit, and charity, by nature, is usually undeserved. A person can only muster so much enthusiasm for thank-yous when they are fatigued by the implications of being without agency in their lives. It’s exhausting to be at the mercy of others, especially when help is needed long term.
Now that I have some distance from that life and can count myself among the financially and emotional “secure,” I’ve come to realize that while my mother was not always a good receiver, it is also true that we as people are not always good givers. We are eager to see the poor as “other” to make ourselves less anxious. And by placing ourselves in a different category of being from those in poverty, we’re able to see our acts of giving as things more extraordinary than they really are, thereby boosting our self-image even further.
I opened with the fact that a third of people in poverty are children because a statistic like that catches our attention and elicits compassion without judgment. Children aren’t capable of making the kinds of life-decisions that we know lead to financial insecurity, so we can focus our generosity on them without so much pressure to be “wise” with our giving.
When we encounter adults living in or at risk of poverty, we are more wary. We wonder if they “deserve” our help – as if they are applying for a merit scholarship. We wonder if they will make “good choices” with the resources we’re considering giving them – as if we have never squandered the riches God has gifted us.
When people looked at my family, damaged and struggling, I believe many of them saw children in need, and a mother who couldn’t – or wouldn’t provide – for them. They saw my mother as a problem rather than a person. Over time, we each internalized in our own way what we saw reflected in the eyes of outsiders.
For my part, I felt shame on behalf of my mother. I felt embarrassed when she did something to verify their poor opinion of her. I felt neglected, even as I watched my mother pour out what was left of her life for us. I didn’t feel compassion for my mother’s plight.
Unfortunately, it was the well-meaning Christians in our lives who drove the wedge between my mother and her children with the most vigor. Their gifts and attentions were extended almost exclusively to us children, and my mother was ignored. It’s undeniable that the opportunities I received made an inestimable impact on my future, and I am now immensely grateful for them. Private school, travel, exposure to great thoughts and theology, gifts that made me feel seen – all of these things granted me privilege that continues to reap fruit. However, my mother was afforded only the most basic help – with expectations and judgments attached – and she continues to suffer for it.
When I left my mother’s home as a new adult, I decided I wanted to help other families in poverty overcome their circumstances and become “self-sufficient” (not needing outside aid, as we did). I worked first at a pregnancy resource center, and then found a position at a transitional housing organization on a mission to “give a hand up – not a handout.” My husband and I lived and worked there as resident managers for almost three years.
I thought I knew a lot about poverty going into that position. Still, I was blindsided time and again by my prejudices as I worked with homeless families and individuals. The causes of their poverty were varied, but the thing that shocked me, again and again, was just how plausible their stories were. I hadn’t expected them to be so relatable in their struggles, their desires, and even their weaknesses. They were just people, but deep down, I’d expected them to be monsters.
That I, a child of poverty and a Christian, had subconsciously seen the poor as sub-human, is telling of our cultural posture toward the poor. I set out in those jobs to fix people, plain and simple. Instead, as I got to know them in close quarters, I was forced to question who was really broken.
January is Poverty Awareness Month, and Pope Francis has challenged us to live in solidarity with the poor. To do that, I believe we have to find ways to remind ourselves that we are the poor. There is no substantive difference between “us” and “them.”
Reflect for a minute on the ease with which you gave and received at Christmas with those you love most. In healthy, loving relationships, we want the best for each other and are eager to bless. We don’t fume and fumble over whether we – or they – are deserving. Love is sufficient motive and repayment for both parties.
This month, we should examine the health of our relationship with the poor, and where there is tension or condescension, ask God to cleanse our hearts and make us one in love. Father, help us to see our gifts as pittance and your children as precious.
Visit http://www.povertyusa.org and the USCCB website for Poverty Awareness Month resources.
Anjanette Barr is a parishioner at St. Paul the Apostle in Juneau, Alaska. She is a wife, mother, writer, and recent convert to the Catholic Church. Anjanette can be reached at http://www.anjanettebarr.com