This is the second part of the Rethink Community mini-series, Paralyzed In Poverty, a first-person account of living life in poverty from the perspective of Andrea Harper.
Harper, a former presidentially-recognized mathematics educator from Springfield, OH, was put on the road of redemption after falling victim to a combination of circumstances which left her struggling in poverty and having to reclaim her good name when left subject to the judicial system.
Currently earning her master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling at Wright State University, today, the former Princeton Review professor is a licensed chemical dependency (LCDC II) counselor and serves as a poverty-alleviation training facilitator and speaker for Think Tank, Inc., a federal partner of the Corporation of National & Community Service (CNCS).
In case you missed it, please read Part I.
The following are Harper’s own words.
“Mom, why would you tell him we were ghetto-rich?”
My 12-year-old was shocked and embarrassed that she found out we make way less money than her uncle, my brother. I have literally built my life up from ground-zero poverty twice in my life. I mean poverty in every area, except intellectual, and sometimes, that spoke of the wheel even felt broken due to the heavy amounts of mental health medications I had to take at the time.
Together for a family of five, we make $24,000/year and that includes the $700 monthly social security check and the $5000 of cash odd jobs we do throughout the year. Our credit is good, so we buy new cars, both of us, my husband and I. Our house is paid off, but on the borderline of being condemned, due to damage to the foundation and malfunctioning windows in the home. We don’t have to pay a mortgage — just $110/month for insurance and taxes. We all have new cellphones, iPads, and computers in the home. We pay cash for braces for our 12-year-old.
My husband’s family comes from deep generational poverty and thinks we are well off. It is only because I can navigate the resources and know every program that can give me a break or benefits to offer. We don’t pay for childcare, but we have to leave our precious baby — the most important thing in our life — with someone we met once and has mediocre childcare.
We don’t pay for gas for my car. Or food. Or medical expenses. We all have name brand wardrobes. But, we have no money for vacations. We live off our tax returns for high-price items throughout the year.
Poverty comes with a great deal of stress with having to have all your documents and receipts and proof of attendance all in a row, and at the right time, because having one thing off means a benefit is cut off — just like that. My children don’t have to be without, and they get mostly what they ask for. So, by some of our families’ standards, we have it all together.
Poverty is relative. Middle-class values, work ethic, and organizational skills can make you successful in the navigation of the resources available to those of us in poverty who think ‘middle class’. But, the system is not set up for those with a generational poverty mindset. The appointment and documentation and organization and tricks of the trade are way too much for someone who lives only in the moment. It is too much to manage for someone who does not have transportation or has a crisis in his or her life. We have a system that sets some up to be ghetto-rich (if they have the knowledge to become so) and others to fail miserably, trying to survive.
How do relationships play a part in this real-life story…my real-life story? An employer allowing flex-time for appointments, or letting me leave an hour early to go home to clean or grocery shop before I pick up my kids. Someone who is willing to pay a living wage that would allow me to let go of the social security check (which has personally become my security blanket, if you will). A family member who would do childcare for you; a member of the family who would help a lot with the cleaning and cooking. One person, one relationship, can lighten the load — it can really make the difference.
So, the system, it may stay the same, so the individual may stay the same, but the relational interaction of just one person can be a game-changer in very small ways or very large ways. A relationship can move a family from living ghetto rich to middle class.