Last week I spent almost two hours with a young woman who is competing hard in the race of life. She did not have a strong, clean start for her race. Unlike many of us, including myself, she didn’t visit the office regularly with her Dad, she didn’t go on sales calls, take dance lessons or learn how to drive a farm tractor or milk the cows. She did, in fact go to University, but even then she was on her own, without those smiling fans that we call our support systems.
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In fact, her Dad died when she was only four and her seven siblings were divided amongst other families. She ended up with an Aunt and Uncle who already had five children of their own. They were caring but they too were trying to catch up. Their home was clean and neat, but there was never enough of anything. This is how it is when you don’t get to start at the starting line. This is how it is when you are way back on the track when the guns sounds and you have to work twice as hard just to get to the point where everyone else actually began their race.
That is what real poverty looks like. Real poverty is a life of “trying to catch up” and even the slightest stumble puts you right back again. Real poverty is getting set up in a house with no washer and dryer, so you and your kids put your clothes in a suitcase and take the bus to the laundromat. Poverty means having the guts to tell the bus driver, that you are going to Disneyland rather than saying, "we’re going to the laundromat.”
Poverty means being grateful for a van with 500,000 km on it and then panicked when the engine goes, or a window blows out. Poverty is uncertainty about a conversation with the police and real fear when there are more bills than money before the end of the month.
Think about it, for so many people in a big city, poverty does not mean trying to “get ahead." For some it always means just trying to “catch up.”
For me the most painful face of poverty is not the addict, not the man begging for change, not the woman willing to sell anything for a meal or worse a drink or a needle. These people are desperate and must be rescued.
For me, the toughest poverty is the family trying to catch up. Maybe two, three or even four jobs just to pay the bills. No room for expensive running shoes, or a new shirt, a summer vacation or even a special meal. Heaven forbid someone gets ill, who can stay home with a sick child, or take the time to take someone to the hospital? The warm, personable woman I met actually is catching up. She is making ends meet and she is trying hard. She is not looking for a hand out, but she could sure use a hand up. To me this is the most important person we can help. She is so close to moving into the pack of runners, so close to being able to help her family, so close to not panicking over setbacks and to be able to sleep at night without worry.
Not everyone gets to the finish line first. In every race there are winners and a whole bunch of losers, but those losers can try again, can run again, can go out to train some more and to get back in the race, and again begin at the starting line.
What our city must do is help more people begin at the starting line. It might not take much, maybe a washer and dryer; maybe the price of some training classes; maybe a few engine repairs. Just enough to give dignity, to relieve worry and help to move them into the pack. There will always be competition, but we can eliminate a lot of poverty if we can just help folks to start their race fairly, at the starting line.