When it comes to poverty, there’s no shortage of euphemisms and clichés people use to describe the poor in their communities. Sometimes those expressions are harmless, even a bit cute. Most of us know someone who’s “as poor as a church mouse.” All too often, though, the expressions inadvertently demean the poor. Every time I hear someone talk about “those less fortunate” I cringe. I try to understand that they mean well, but I have to admit that I struggle with what I’m hearing. I feel the same way when I hear someone describe the poor as “those in need.” But, I get downright apoplectic when I see someone surveying a poor person and muttering “There but for the grace of God go I” or listen to academia’s outhouse sociologists discuss the “shame or the curse of poverty.”
As I said in my previous essay, I have an intimate knowledge of what poverty is like. I know what it’s like to live at the mercy of institutions where people are trained to do the things for “those less fortunate” that they are supposedly unable to do for themselves. I know the sting of early life lived as one of the “needy,” as opposed to being considered someone with all the physical and intellectual equipment necessary to be a contributing member of a community. I know all too well about what it’s like to be labelled by those I had to assume were “more fortunate” (a euphemism for better, perhaps?) than me.
I’m not really sure that those who use the euphemisms, clichés, and labels know why they’ve become so comfortable with them. Maybe it soothes their consciences. “I’ve said the magic words; therefore I’m a bundle of empathy and compassion.”
What is it that makes these euphemisms and clichés to toxic? In his Christmas address to the public in 2014, Brad Montgomery, Director of the Torres Shelter in Chico, California, put it this way: “They are clichés because they are completely inadequate at summing up the human being involved. We are all more than a diagnosis or a label that can be used to describe us.”
That’s it! That’s what many of those who spout the meaningless platitudes fail to grasp. At the receiving end of every euphemism there stands a living, breathing human being.
That’s why I still recoil when I hear the euphemisms. I hear them and I want to scream, “The poor are human beings, dammit, not abstractions. They’re not less fortunate than you. In fact, you’re no better than them. The poor aren’t cursed. They don’t have anything to be ashamed of.”
The truth is, the overwhelming majority of the poor have more than enough to make them successful in life. They have hearts and souls, something their so-called benefactors can’t seem to bring themselves to accept. As I think about it, I want to scream even louder, but it’s probably better to let “Jane Eyre” do my screaming for me: “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! - I have as much soul as you, - and full as much heart!”
Growing up in poverty taught me many valuable lessons. I learned a lot about courage and the value of hard work from my mother. I learned, despite what my “benefactors” told me, that poverty couldn’t prevent me from being happy. I might have been poor, but being the stickball champion of Chatham Street brought me great joy. I learned that poverty couldn’t close my mind off to great ideas or the classics of literature. As author Frank McCourt once observed, “I might have been poor, my shoes might have been broken, but my mind was a palace.” I learned that the stars in the sky and the warmth of the sun were as available to me as they were to the richest man on earth.
They were all wonderful lessons, but there are other lessons that will always be even closer to my heart. I learned them through experience. Most of those who are poor have great affinity for one another. They understand each other. They care for one another. They share dreams and aspirations with one another. They gladly share the few earthly possessions they have. Added together, these shared values constitute a powerful fellowship of poverty.
To those in positions of power and privilege, these small gestures must seem meaningless. I suspect that’s because they can’t see that true wealth has much more to do with generosity of spirit than it does with economics. Holy Writ puts it this way - there are times when one can “have nothing, yet possess everything.”