**A few friends requested that I post a copy of my final exam essay, “The New Face of Poverty.” It’s based upon David K. Shipler’s “At the Edge of Poverty” and also contains elements of an essay I wrote some time ago, The Poverty of Inconvenience. It’s a little “researchy…” Thanks for reading!**
At the Edge of Poverty, by David K. Shipler, examines the lives of those who live on the fringe of society, poised precariously between affluence and destitution, living lives of near invisibility, all while desperately pursuing The American Dream. Unfortunately, this “one time possible dream” is now more of a myth, one only barely couched in reality, sold under the guise that “any individual of the humblest origins can climb into well-being” (Shipler ). Shipler’s goal is to strip the mask that covers the new face of poverty in American and to dispel the inaccurate assumptions that “a low wage is somehow the worker’s fault” and that “welfare was (is) an index of immorality” (Shipler). Poverty in America is the new “norm,” and the new face of poverty is that of the gainfully employed and those who are struggling against societal perceptions as to what defines “poor.”
There is very little dispute that the gap between affluence and poverty has widened “with a median net worth of $833,600 among the top 10 percent and just $7,900 for the bottom 20 percent” (Shipler ). Yet, as Shipler reveals, these individuals fit into no easy category, for they are “neither helpless nor impotent, but stand on various points along the spectrum between the polar opposites of personal and social responsibility”. He presents the reader with alternating portraits of despair and hope, of tragedy and triumph, demonstrating that poverty is personal, and doesn’t fit any of the simple definitions one would find in a dictionary.
Yet, poverty in America doesn’t quite look like poverty in other countries. Many of the poor in America own cell phones, computers, automobiles and live in homes with inside plumbing, air conditioning, heat and at least one television. As Shipler reveals, “most of the impoverished people of the world would be dazzled by the apartments, telephones, television sets, running water, clothing and other amenities that surround the poor in America”. Yet the trappings of affluence are merely distractions. Despite acknowledging these amenities, Shipler is careful to state that this “does not mean that the (American) poor are not poor, or that those living on the edge of poverty are not truly on the edge of a cliff”.
The view on poverty in America is somewhat misleading, for as At the Edge of Poverty reveals, “the federal poverty line cuts far below the amount needed for a decent living, because the Census Bureau still uses the basic formula designed in 1964 by the Social Security Administration, with four modest revisions in subsequent years” (Shipler). Without considering the many and varied expenses and expenditures that make up daily life in America, this formula fails to reflect just how close to the edge many American families live. It is a harsh reality that most of the marginal poor “have less control than the affluent over their private decisions, less insulation from the cold machinery of government, less agility to navigate around the pitfalls of a frenetic world driven by technology and competition” (Shipler). Poised upon the edge, most of those who “fall” are only observed by those balancing upon the same precipice, fearful that the plunge is just one misstep away. Those who live in relative ease and affluence, can never truly realize the psychological impact of daily deprivation.
Quite simply, poverty is relative to the experience of the one who lives it. It is either ennobling or destructive, depending upon the perceptions of those who struggle on a daily basis, one paycheck away from homelessness, one illness away from joblessness. Poverty can be, alternately, a friend and an enemy, as I’ve learned through personal experience:
“Mom…are we poor?” This surprising question was posed by one of my sons, a few years ago. It was not precipitated by a sudden financial catastrophe. We hadn’t lost our home, there was food in the fridge at that time and payday was just around the corner. “Why do you ask son? Are you worried about something?” One never knows what secret worries may trouble the heart of a child. “One of my friends said our family was poor. I didn’t know what he meant and I didn’t know what to say. Are we poor?” I reassured him that he lacked for nothing, that the wealth of love and life that surrounds him every day is more than most people in the world can ever dream. The answer satisfied him and he rejoined a veritable “treasure trove” of brothers and sisters in play. Why did he ask? And how does a child define poverty? On the outside, our life appears to be one of affluence. Appearances, however, can be deceiving. As a family of eight, we already face the challenges inherent in providing for more than the median sized family. And yet, we know deprivation:
We know what it is to be hungry, when the cabinets are empty and payday is a couple days away. We’ve felt the bitter cold, when we’ve run out of propane and had limited resources for heating our home. We’ve known the fear of illness and no insurance. We live without air conditioning and cable television. We’ve faced those days when there wasn’t enough gas in the car to make it to our next destination. Still, there is great irony in contemplating these words and writing of poverty as I sit before a computer, hooked up to the internet, with a roof over my head, healthy children, a garden thriving and food in the refrigerator and cabinets.
This is the new face of poverty, it isn’t the most obvious, but it is that of many American families. These families live in the shadows, hidden as are most of those who struggle, understanding that this form of poverty is a dirty word in the mouth of most Americans. It is something to be shunned and abhorred, much as the ancients would shun and abhor the leper. There are some who would insist that those of us who struggle are experiencing a bit of divine retribution, that disordered finances and poverty are the result of laziness or ineptitude. I would argue that a degree of poverty isn’t necessarily a curse, that it can even be good, that it ennobles, uplifts and fosters an appreciation for the simple things in life. Those of us, who are materially poor yet spiritually rich, exist as an indictment upon the world, as a conviction as well as a reminder of the blessings of ease and plenty.
Yes, we are poor. But it is the poverty of inconvenience, of difficulty and noble struggle. It is the war that is daily waged by the average American family. We are the new face of poverty. We are not the “Occupiers.” We are not Socialists. We do not judge the wealthy as greedy or immoral, but praise them for their ingenuity, societal and economic contributions. We do not seek what isn’t ours. We are always more likely to see others as less fortunate than ourselves. We hope for more, but spend little time lamenting that which we lack, nor do we curse or rail against those who have more. Poverty has many faces, one need only look around to appreciate the beauty and diversity of those who struggle to prevail, while in its grip. One need only look inside to see that poverty and all its repercussions, is one of the most powerful, destructive and, consequently motivating conditions, and is still as yet so little understood by those outside its realm.
Shipler, David K. “At the Edge of Poverty.” The Working Poor – Invisible In America. Vintage – Random House. New York. Print.