Growing up, I listened to my grandmother Skatzes talk about her Depression experiences as a wife and mother of a large family. She talked about how everyone was in the same boat and how they all worked together to make it through tough times. Folks did favors for one another: "I'll give you the shirt my boy outgrew if you give me the shoes that your little girl can't fit into anymore." The town doctors went on treating the sick and delivering babies, telling families to pay as they could. "I know you're good for it." Grandma never glorified the Great Depression as a time of universal goodwill nor did she minimize the deprivation. Her stories demonstrated though that most went on with their daily lives, helping one another as best they could.
Those stories fascinated me. Several years ago, while having lunch with my friend Roger, we speculated about what historical era we would love to visit and experience firsthand. Roger picked the early years of the 1900s because of the new inventions: automobiles, airplanes, movies. He wanted to be in the midst of that exciting change. I picked the 1930s, the Great Depression, so I could witness those small episodes of daily life that Grandma had related.
A good moral to that casual lunch discussion is "be careful what you wish for." I don't have to go back in time to witness what my Grandma Skatzes lived through; I get to witness it in the here and now.
When you live in poverty, you bank heavily in relationships, because it is relationships that help you navigate the rocky shoals of your everyday life. As the Great Recession grinds on and more and more of us move downward on the economic scale, I see this played out daily.
Midway through April I was privileged to again attend a session of Grace Medical Clinic, again accompanying our Amy. This time I paid close attention to the workings of the waiting room while the Clinic volunteers performed their amazing ministry.
Amy got there early this time, to be higher on the waiting list. By the time I arrived from work, Amy had already met and talked with some of the other early arrivals. Cheryl, perhaps my age, had already taken Amy under her wing. As she scratched the poison ivy that had brought her to Grace, Cheryl talked to Amy about getting a practical nursing certificate through the local career center, about the portability of health care skills, and about how to get information about the programs and find out about financial aid. Amy listened intently. A little later, when Cheryl learned that Amy's dad had a CDL, she proffered a contact for a possible trucking job. "Tell him to call Tom and make sure you tell him to mention my name," she said, writing down the phone number.
All around the room, others were also sharing job leads, tips on how to get by, information on other community resources. Amy only had $1.00 to get her to Friday's payday and groceries, so I gave her the loose dollars in my wallet. By the time we left Grace, her dad had called and offered to take her out to KFC. Amy would eat that evening.
Watching and listening to the exchange of support and advice hit me more than usual because earlier that same day I had shared tea and talk with a longtime friend who is struggling hard right now. This is someone who, along with her husband, had attained recognizable benchmarks of success—college educations, home ownership, secure jobs—and then watched everything get swept away by illness, job loss, long term unemployment, and foreclosure. A year ago, they moved back here, her hometown, to be closer to an aging parent and try to make a stand against the economic devastation that had roared through their lives. She has a fulltime minimum wage job, her husband has a part-time minimum wage job. These are the only jobs they have been able to find in over two years. She has been off work for several weeks due to injury, so their financial resources, already tight, have been stretched past breaking. As we talked, my friend revealed that they had applied for food stamps, and that they had no way to pay their rent in May. She said, ruefully, "I never wanted to come back here with my tail tucked between my legs." We talked about and shared what social workers call "linkages." I gave her names to call, agencies and programs to check out, even a job lead. I shared with her some of our own struggles in recent months. The reality is, I told her, but for the fact that our home is mortgage free, we would have been at risk for homelessness this winter due to no fault of our own. Fortunately, because we don't have rent or a mortgage to pay, we not only kept our housing but also kept the lights on and put food on the table as well. No monthly housing expense is a blessing my friend and millions of others like her do not have.
When she left, we hugged long and hard.
This is what poverty in 2011 is about. It is about the high school friend in her 50s who lies awake at night wondering how long she and her husband will have a roof over their heads. It is about Amy eating only one or two meals a day because that's all she can afford some weeks. It is about the 15 patients at Grace that night, young and old, at least one of them very ill, waiting patiently because this was the only way they could get medical attention. It is about doing what you can, penny by penny, to try to meet your most basic needs.
And it's about relationships.
One of the many benefits of my new job is that I have office colleagues I see and interact with daily. We all have different backgrounds, different politics, different areas of expertise, different life stories. But the one thing we seem to have in common is a recognition of the vast reach of the Great Recession and how deeply it has hurt our community. None of us feels it is over yet. The poor are not nameless to us, because they are now not only our clients, but also our neighbors, our friends, our family, and, sometimes, even ourselves.