Poverty in a Small Town

The Vermont Council on Rural Development recently held community wide meetings to explore ways of improving life in small town Bennington.  Most of the focus is usually on economic development. This time there was also a meeting focused on the issue of poverty.  Meetings such as this are held every year or so. They usually result in discussions about having more meetings to decide when to have more meetings about having meetings. Then someone is appointed to write a report about the meetings.

This year the poverty meeting attracted a surprisingly large number of people, estimated to be well over a hundred. Many appeared to be ‘workers’ in the system – possibly on ‘company’ or taxpayer time.  There were also some interested private citizens.  A tiny number – maybe five or six – were real people, those who depend on the system for survival.

This article was inspired by the comments heard at the conference. Most showed a lack of understanding about the causes and effects of poverty.  The people meant well and were well-motivated. They were sincere and the compassion in their hearts was apparent, but many in our culture across the United States just do not get it.   Our culture is obsessed with a worship of wealth and material goods.  The bottom line is that we live in a very classist society.

In Bennington there are three very distinct classes.  First, there are the ‘fancy people’. They are the ones who rule and control everything. They are on the boards — the hospital board, the library board, the select board, the school boards.  They attend the formal fundraisers for the hospital and other institutions. They have the power — even the power over life and death. They, occasionally during a medical crisis in the hospital, make the decision to pull the plug or allow life to go on.

Then there is the large group of ordinary citizens. Some are blue collar workers.  Most work hard. Love their families. And have had family in Vermont for generations.  They acknowledge the class system in conversation often.   They call it the ol’ boys network – croneyism.

The third group consists of those who are in need. Those on the bottom of the economic pile.  At the conference some of the most impressive comments were made by a poor mother of two disabled children. She talked about the oppressive avalanche of redundant paper work required to get any tiny benefit.  The social services system is designed by nameless, faceless, unelected beaurocrats.  It is set up to assure maximum job security to the workers in the system. To a struggling family it often feels like an attack of the ‘paper churners’.   Being poor is a full time job.  Sadly, it often takes precious time away from the children.

Below are some observations, made during many years of studying the culture, not only in Vermont but across the US.

Poverty means living with shame.

Poverty means working three jobs, and still not ‘making it’.

Poverty means that you go to work when you are sick.  Worse than that you send your children to school when they are sick.

Sometimes poverty means that you skip meals so that your children can eat.

Poverty means that your housing is never secure.

Once in a while, poverty means that your child will be stereotyped and misjudged by his teacher.

Poverty means having no dependable source of transportation.

Poverty means that you will receive inferior health care – maybe no health care at all.

Poverty means that you have no access to dental care. Remember the death of Diamonte Driver – a 12 year-old Maryland boy.  His mother could not afford dental care for him. He died of a tooth abscess. An $80 tooth extraction would have saved his life.

Poverty is not like that described in The Waltons. Poverty can mean isolation from family and friends.

Poverty can mean missing your mother’s funeral because you had to go to work.

Poverty means you are invisible and voiceless.

Poverty means that no matter how hard you work, you will still be on the wrong side of the desk.

Poverty means that your hobby is not skiing or surfing.  It is surviving.

Living in poverty means that you will probably never hold elective office.

Poverty is declaring bankruptcy because your wife has cancer.

Being a low income father means that you will miss your son’s games because you have to work.

Living in poverty means that you have no options – no choices about where to live, what to eat.

Poverty means that you pay for the family groceries with a credit card – until it is maxed out.

Poverty means following all of the rules. Then graduating with oppressive student debt so that the president of UVM can be paid $447,000 per year.

Being poor means no access to gyms, fitness centers, etc.

Being poor means that you do not have equal access to the legal system.

Being a poor child means that you will be at increased risk of being bullied.

Being poor means that you dread the holidays. Your family celebrations are not like those depicted in Norman Rockwell paintings.

Being a baby in a low income family means that you might spend all of your infancy strapped to a plastic baby carrier in a day care center, while your mother goes to work.

Being poor could mean that you are the waitress serving Mothers’ Day dinner to other mothers in a fancy restaurant.

Being poor keeps you on the wrong side of the digital divide – no computer, no ISP, no cell phone, no Facebook, no Twitter.

Being poor might mean that you never get to see the ocean - never get to see your children playing in the surf…

Being young and poor in Bennington might mean that you never get to go to a library that doesn’t ban books.

Being poor means that you feel disenfranchised when there is so much focus on the middle class, and so little on the poor.

Living in poverty means that you care more about what is in your grocery sack than any news about Goldman Sachs.

Poverty means that your life-span will be shortened.

Even in death you might not escape the chains of poverty.  Being poor might mean that you have no say in the final disposal of your remains.  Cremation might be imposed, even if you would have preferred burial.

Being poor means that you carry the burden of the misjudgment of others.

Will the United States ever rise above the evils of classism and racism?   Is ‘poverty’ the new black?

Rosemarie Jackowski is an advocacy journalist living in Vermont. Read other articles by Rosemarie.