Living in Poverty Can Be an Art

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In many ways, my friend Susan lives a typical poor person’s life. The 2-bedroom Clintonville house she shares with her 11 year-old daughter, Lisa, and boyfriend, Bob, is modest. When it rains they put a bowl on the bathroom floor for water from the ceiling leak they can’t afford to fix. Their car is falling apart. Susan and Lisa get health care thru Medicaid and Lisa’s on her school’s free lunch program.

Now in her mid-30′s, over the years Susan has worked a string of mostly-menial jobs. Right now she works about 10 hours/week babysitting. Bob works three jobs. Financially speaking, their life is, to use Susan’s word, precarious. If Susan’s circumstances sound typical of a life in poverty, her perspective on it all doesn’t. She’s attractive, smart, articulate, and healthy. With only a high school degree, she knows she could go back to school to upgrade her earning power, which is what her parents want her to do. But why should she, she wonders, when life is great right now?

Strange as it may sound, Susan has largely opted for a life millions of poor people struggle to escape.

It’s not that Susan likes being poor. But to her the trade off between making money and living a good life is crystal clear. She describes her mom’s life as a joyless grind, consisting of a 9-to-6 job, dinners made, an hour of free time, and sleep. Day after day. Susan’s life, on the other hand, is full of her favorite things – books, gardening, friends, and family. “I work very hard for my family,” she says, “and what I do is really important. It’s a shame that I don’t get paid for it. Everybody who does this work should be paid.”

Susan says that having no money forces her to make the kinds of sound ethical decisions more affluent people don’t. If she comes into $100, rather than go to Nordstroms and buy a pair of shoes, she’ll go to a thrift shop and buy two pairs and a jacket, two dresses for her daughter, a nice lamp, and a painting, maybe more. To save gas money, she walks or rides her bicycle whenever possible. She enjoys the “everyday luxuries” — flowers, nice walks, inexpensive gifts she makes by hand. There is a real art to living in poverty, she says, and she is an artist.

The key to making it all work, Susan says, are a handful of families and fellow travelers in the neighborhood. Like Susan, all of them are white. Most are single mothers or fathers from middle class backgrounds. These families sustain each other with the bread and butter of daily life: toilet paper when money is short, rides for their kids, babysitting, meals, hand-me-downs, showers when the gas has been cut off for nonpayment, as well as moral support, protection against the judgments of others. They are a community.

I ask Susan if she thinks her life will change at some point, say when her daughter leaves home. She says no. Why would it, she wonders, “we live really well.”

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