To be poor is to be vulnerable. One of the biggest problems with poverty is that, usually, you never see it coming. “IT” could be anything; broken car; broken tooth; the unexpected school fee, rent increase or thoughtless comment from the store clerk.
When you see it coming, it might be easier; might be. At least you can plan for what you know you don’t have, mentally anyways. But the truly discouraging part of poverty is that, while you can’t see IT coming, you always know IT is out there, waiting. You just don’t know what. You just don’t know when. You are keenly aware not only of your extreme vulnerability, but also of your powerlessness to do anything about it.
When you live in poverty you are financially vulnerable. Often well-meaning approaches to address poverty by increasing “financial literacy” are patronizing and demeaning. In fact, those who must struggle daily with balancing expenses to the cent are typically much better at “budgeting” than anyone else, and should in truth being teaching financial literacy.
But the whole problem with budgets is that they end up stacked like a house of cards; it all balances perfectly until someone opens a door and the breeze comes in. It is the unexpected cost that upsets everything. That could be an ambulance trip or drug costs, a child’s broken glasses, a car repair, a day off work. So you learn to walk carefully and sleep with one eye open.
When you live in poverty you are physically vulnerable. The link between poverty and poor health is well established. It is not only the impacts of poorer nutrition, poorer quality housing or living in the cheaper areas where your environment is poor. It is also that constant stress of IT that follows you like a shadow.
So, when you live in poverty you are also vulnerable mentally; vulnerable to the fear of not having enough. Vulnerable to the fear of what might cause you to not have enough. Vulnerable to the fear of others finding out you don’t have enough. When you live in poverty, you become skilled at making excuses. And that, too, takes its toll.
And, when you live in poverty, you are vulnerable spiritually. “IT” could be the look from the store clerk when your debit is declined. “IT” could be the public ritual of queuing up to access some benefit or other. “IT” could be the cruel comment from a classmate on whatever it is you have or don’t have or cannot do. “IT” could be anything that overtly or subtly knocks your spirit. And IT doesn’t end when you grow up and leave school either. A participant at a Poverty Talks event related her experience.
“I live in a poor area and I hate celebrations, because cars of young men come driving by looking for prostitutes, and then they yell at me and call me names, just because I live in a poor area.”
Ultimately, vulnerability is about power. Those who live in poverty are predominantly those with the least influence, the least voice, the least power. And it is inaccurate to say that such persons lack influence because they are poor, but rather, that they are poor because they lack a voice, because they lack power: because they do not have the ability to influence the decisions that most closely affect them.
Yes, poverty is vulnerability. Yet, are we not all, in our own way, just as vulnerable? Perhaps we all live precariously with our own financial house of cards. In a consumer economy where our debt-to-income rate is now at 150%, our financial security has been predicated on some fundamentals of questionable sustainability over which we too lack power and control.
The brute fact is, over the past three decades, our incomes haven’t significantly budged. After falling precipitously between 1982 and 1993, the median income of Calgary families slowly recovered, but did not surpass its 1982 level until 2006. By 2009, median family income was a mere 6% above what it was in 1982. Moreover, whatever income gains we made, were largely achieved by working more rather than earning more. Over that same period of time, the number of one-earner households progressively fell as the share of two-earner households rose. And, by the end of the 2000’s, the share of three-earner households had also begun to creep up.
The other financial strategy employed by our consumer society to make ends meet is to borrow. Borrow to such an extent that the Governor of the Bank of Canada recently issued a warning to Canadians. While a significant amount of this debt is secured by real estate, concern exists over the vulnerability of the economy to the fortunes of the real estate market.
Our financial security, therefore, has rested to a large degree on the continuation of a number of factors that are less than certain: a job market capable of sustaining at least two earners in a household; continued low interest rates; and a growing (or at least stable) real estate market. And, in many cases, a marriage that lasts.
Changes in any one of these factors could be the breeze on the house of cards. Little wonder then, that some of the key concerns of Calgary adults in a recent survey were having too much debt and not saving for the future, while the most important concern was having too much stress.
So the dividing line between the “rich” and the “poor” is an increasingly ambiguous one, and it provokes fear and that same feeling of vulnerability in all of us. We work too much. We live off our credit cards. We pray that our jobs will continue. We worry about the unexpected car repair, broken glasses, ambulance ride, or illness. And when that happens, some of us actually end up crossing that artificial poverty line and landing hard on the other side.
And for those that don’t, in our fear, we unthinkingly make comments about “the poor”. If only they could just “Get a Job”. “Get an Education”. “Get it Together”. For “IT” stalks us all.
So, to be poor is indeed to be vulnerable. But to be vulnerable is also to be poor. And we are all vulnerable to a greater or lesser degree, lacking control over own lives and equally at risk of poverty ourselves. And it is our fear of that poverty that in the end makes us all poor, financially, physically, mentally and spiritually. And if, somehow, we can figure out how to heal our own fear, we may coincidentally solve poverty too.