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Poverty Versus Simply Being Poor

November 5, AD2016

homelessness, poverty, neighborPoverty Versus Simply Being Poor

For nearly a score of years, my wife and I lived in Central Texas. Much of that time, we worked with the Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVdP) and spent time serving the working poor in the area. These were people who may simply have had too much month at the end of the money and needed a bit of help to get them over a rough patch in their lives.  Other clients we served were those people who used the Society as part of their budgets and would turn to us every six months, as they had done for years, and were teaching their children to do. Within the Society itself, these differences may be referred to as situational poverty and generational poverty. Clearly, there are many conditions which contribute to generational poverty other than calling for help frequently for a number of years. However, all that was intended here was to present two levels of need – short-term and on-going.

Some of the cases we would see were painful, some were disturbing and some were simply people who appeared to be playing the system. One of the clients we saw immediately before Christmas one year was a young mother of three children.  Her husband left her and he had started divorce paperwork.  He was making no contributions to the household at all, while she was scrambling to get some financial aid from the State, she had taken a slightly better than minimum wage job, and was trying to fill the gaps in her income by selling off some household things.  She was sleeping on the floor in her room as she had sold off her bedroom set, she had to use the laundromat as she had sold off her washer and dryer to make her rent payment. All she had asked for was a bit of help with the utility bill for that month.  SVdP was able to help her with the utilities, she received groceries, and some gift cards for local stores so that the kids were able to have some bit of a normal Christmas that year.

Another young woman we served had a different view of the SVdP and her need.  This woman had a large home ( 2600-3100 sq ft ) for herself and her increasing number of young children.  The rent was paid by HUD, and there were a couple of high-end SUVs parked in the driveway.  Her total income was, as she reported, the rent help she received and food stamps.

Our conference ( local parish unit ) of the SVdP had a rule which held that we would help the same client only every six months unless there were any sorts of extenuating circumstances. That way, we could take our rather limited resources and provide some help to a larger number of people.  SVdP would be contacted by this woman every six months within a week or so of the 6-month anniversary of the most recent home visit. My wife and I got to see her several times over the passage of time and her income did not change significantly, but her family size did as her daughters were becoming pregnant.

She did not work, the late teen children did not work, and she had the usual bills, lights, water, gasoline, etc.  It was clear that with nearly a dozen children and grandchildren, there had to be another source of funds coming into the home, but the attitude we needed to maintain was meet the requested need if possible, and if she was playing the system, or not reporting help from other churches etc., she would have the opportunity to chat about it with the Big Guy after some bit of time.

Then We Moved…

My wife and I moved from Central Texas to East TN about 14 months ago, and the story of how that happened may be an article at some other point in time.

In East TN, there are poor people, just as there are everywhere, but the level of poverty here is not like anything we had experienced in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Iowa or Texas. Compared to some of the people we have seen here, the poor in Central Texas were living in the lap of luxury.  Yes, of course, there were people in poverty in Texas as well,  yes, there were people who could barely keep body and soul waving to each other, but we did not get to see them, at least in our area of Central Texas. Our area of Central Texas had lots of poor people, but very few who were trapped in pervasive poverty.

A couple of examples will be helpful. We spoke to one of the home visit teams and it was reported that the home that was visited had no electricity, no running water, no indoor plumbing, and the side walls were one board thick ( no insulation ). Loaded weapons were present and on many of the tables, counters, etc., as no one knew when some sort of game might wander onto the property.

A cinder block home my wife and I visited had water streaming from beneath it as there was a broken pipe which they could not afford to repair, no air conditioning, one broken window that we could see and several non-operational appliances. The resident of this home had very poor dental health, but could not afford any dental work or simple procedures.

Meet the Stated Need

One of the most difficult things to do when involved in a home visit, is to meet only the need expressed. For example, if there were $2500 in the conference checkbook, it would be easy to give it all to one family by paying all the utilities, installing a wood stove, and paying to have all four tires of the rust bucket replaced, plus a few hundred dollars of food.

Spending at that level, to over-satisfy the need, may be a tremendous disservice to the client. For example, the family with no indoor plumbing, no running water, no electricity, and hunt-ready weapons had not asked for any help with any of those conditions which to many of us are routine. Rather, the woman just wanted a limited service land line installed such that if her husband, who had health issues, needed emergency care, she could call the ambulance, or the fire department or whomever. While her “need”,  based on the reactions, experience, or life style of the team, should have cost thousands of dollars, all she needed to keep her safe was a $30 a month land line phone service such that she could get help for her husband.

Too much help, in that case, would have been too much for her or them to handle.  It is preferable to meet the stated need that the client brings rather than providing a solution to all of the issues which may be seen by someone with a greater financial resource.

It is hard to believe that too much help is detrimental to the client, but that is truly what can happen.

A panhandler asks for a meal outside of a fast food joint and only wants a burger and a drink.  What good is it to buy 293 burgers for the person?  Soon, they will be left with a couple of hundred cold and spoiling burgers.

It is difficult to do, but what is appropriate is that we meet the stated need of the person.  Matt 25:40 does not say, “You will be cool if you give everything you have to the next poor person.” We need to meet their need, respect them, love them, keep them safe but do not make matters worse by doing too much in our zeal to do enough.

Be prepared to spend all you have, if that is the need of the client, but be certain that you always spend enough to meet their needs.  Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, but don’t buy a Bugatti when all they have asked for is a pair of tires for an 8-year old pick-up.

It is critical that we leave them in a much better spot, but, that we do what they have requested, not what we think they need.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Dan and his bride, his gift from God, have been married over 50 years, and they have recently moved to East TN to reduce the distance to family. He is a 4th degree Knight, is active in the Society of St Vincent de Paul, and several other ministries. He has been listed in the "Who's Who Directory of Global Business Leaders".

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  • smk629

    Mr. Byron, thank you so much for this. I am a Secular Franciscan, only professed for a year and a half. Poverty was something my good St. Francis treasured, and so do I. I am trying to find the right situation where I can serve the poor. We have many homeless street people who frequent my parish. Our current and former pastor has warned us not to give them cash, since they could use this for unwholesome things, but that it is okay to give them food, gloves, etc. Your wise insight is something I will carry with me.

    • Dan Byron

      Your pastor is quite correct. Unfortunately, there are those ( we hope ) few people who will immediately convert cash to strange chemical compounds. When dealing with a panhandler on the street, I will either (1) give a gift certificate ( $5 or so ) to a local fast food restaurant, or (2) ask them to come with me into a convenience store and I will get them a sandwich, etc. In either case, they do not get cash directly. With the cooler weather coming, I very much like the idea of gloves ( or mittens since they are less size specific ) or watch caps.