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A Face of Urban Poverty

She walked into my office with the bill in her hand and a combination of humiliation and anger on her face. She was behind in her rent and the housing agency wanted the money now.

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Woman & Poverty woodblock print by suzanne l. vinson

She sat in the chair next to my desk. Sweat dripped from her forehead after the walk on this hot summer day. Her shoulders relaxed as the breeze from my fan waved over her face. Still holding the infuriating paper, she let her story explode.

She had been doing fine. Her children were doing well in school. A job kept up with most of her expenses. Project housing helped with her budget. She had no vehicle and no health insurance.

The apartment itself was okay. Unfortunately the neighborhood drug traffic often left bullet casings lying in the dirt and grass mixture that passed for a front yard. Each morning, before her young daughter woke up, she went out to gather the metal before her daughter could find it. After sundown each evening the family lived away from the windows, sometimes crouching along the floor, just in case a stray bullet entered their home. She was tired of living that way, but what were her choices?

Food was spare, with a lot of starch, yet this mother knew about balanced diets and did the best she could with the money she had. The family was making it, and she was proud of the values she was passing on to her children. She was proud of her children.

Until things fell apart, she was proud of herself as an honorable woman.

The trouble started when the oldest son got a job at a McDonald’s. He now knew the pride of taking initiative and of being a responsible man. He hoped to help with some family expenses. He was looking forward to buying a real wardrobe for school in the fall. His mama was proud of him too. She was glad he wanted to be responsible and delighted that he could start his senior year with clothes that pleased him. She hoped that he could spend all his earnings on himself.

Unfortunately, the son’s earnings eliminated much of the housing assistance that she had received. For two months she had struggled to pay the higher rent, but was now having to choose between rent and electricity. That morning she had asked her son to quit his job. She hoped I could provide the rent payment, which I did, so that they could start the new month without debt.

She was angry at the landlord, angry at the housing rules, angry at herself for not being able to provide for her children, angry that she had had to take away her son’s joy. She was humiliated that she had to ask for help.

Compared to many mired in poverty around the globe, she was rich. She had a home, electricity, running water, and furniture. Public transportation took her to her job. The grocery store provided healthy decently priced food. But her minimum wage job kept her and her children in poverty, without the essentials most of us take for granted. With this misadventure she had lost her hope that someday things would be better. In asking her son to quit his job and asking our organization for help, had she also lost her sense of herself as an honorable woman?

The poor are among us. We enjoy our cheaper prices because the poor are among us. We have many of our conveniences because the poor are among us. When honor is tallied, who are the impoverished?