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Windows into a Life in Poverty and Lessons for Social Workers

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Living in poverty is more than not having enough money to meet an arbitrary threshold. For many, a life in poverty is one of perpetual disappointment, missed opportunities, self-loathing and blame. Recognizing these feelings in others, and the impact they have on us professionally, is an important step in creating change. A simple transaction at a thrift store, or a quick inventory of gas purchases, can open our eyes to so much more.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, I found myself browsing the racks at a nearby thrift store, shopping for clothes for my upcoming second child. As I haphazardly tossed one-dollar onesies and two-dollar leggings into a growing mound in my cart, I observed another woman, presumably a mom like me, anxiously moving through the store aisles. She carefully scrutinized each item and, even more carefully, examined the price tag. Surveying items that held promise, she would look at the cost and quickly place them back on the rack.

I encountered this woman again at the checkout. She had ended up with four or five items—clothing for a small boy–and paid for the items using carefully counted nickels, dimes, and pennies.

As I got back to my car, I couldn’t help but feel great sorrow for this woman; too poor to buy many of the second hand items she wanted for her young son, and pulling from the bottom of the barrel to provide him with a few essentials. As a mom, I could intimately relate to the deep-seeded desire to provide for your children, and the failure and humiliation we feel when we can’t do that as well as we feel we should.

I, however, had visited the thrift store because I am thrifty, not poor. I can’t stomach the prices at fancy children’s clothing stores for items my child will likely wear once. I have never been unable to purchase clothes for my kids for financial reasons. I have never had to worry that my family won’t have enough of what they need.

Of course, my assumptions could be off. There are undoubtedly multiple scenarios for the woman’s behavior, and there are certainly those who would presume this mom’s prior bad choices or poor money management had gotten her to the place she was that day.  But as a social worker, these are the experiences I can’t help but internalize and analyze. Like many social workers and other helping professionals, I can’t help but feel the pangs of sadness and anxiety, observing the lives of those who struggle to make ends meet.

These observations offer a window into the reality of living in poverty; an unending series of difficult decisions and stress, feelings of unworthiness and humiliation, excited to watch your children grow, but scared about what it will mean for your tight budget. Research increasingly points to the impact of poverty on cognitive functioning and physical health, which is likely no surprise to those of us who have worked in the field. As social workers, observing and internalizing these feelings is a part of what makes participating in this profession so profound, yet often so painful.

This is certainly not my only experience which offered a glimpse into the daily lives of the poor, and if you gathered a group of social workers to discuss, they could most likely build a long list. Both in practice and in our daily interactions in the community, we see it. Some are more obvious. Observations of diapers not changed because there are too few to get through to the next pay, bare cupboards during a home visit, moms who stay with abusive partners to keep a roof over their children’s heads.

Others are less obvious. One dollar lunches at a fast-food restaurant, kids in too-small clothing. A mother snapping at her child who asks for something at the store, not out of anger at the child, but anger with herself for always having to say no. I keenly remember, several years back, watching a low-income parent at a birthday party interacting with the other moms and dads. One mom was gleefully sharing about an upcoming family event in the community. “Only five dollars per child!” she exclaimed. I saw the other mom hesitate, look down, shame in her eyes. Five dollars per child? Easier said than done.

My father, a life-long advocate for low-income people, has many times encouraged people to take a glance at the gas pumps in any given community when they stop for gas. In wealthy and middle class communities, pumps will show recent purchases of $30, $40, even $50 dollars. Full tanks, gas flowing until the pump clicks, symbolic of the abundance in the community. What about a glance at the tanks in poor communities? Purchases totaling $2, $4—gas purchased one or two gallons at a time, as money becomes available (sometimes borrowed or found) — to support a single trip to the store, or the doctor, or work. This strategizing with scarcity is a prime example of the difficult day-to-day decision making that plagues many in low-income communities.

Much like identifying signs of child abuse and neglect, social workers are often the first to observe these seemingly insignificant behaviors. And while others may be quick to blame poor judgement or character deficits for these unfortunate circumstances, we as social workers can see them as symptoms of a larger problem. We can choose to believe that all people, regardless of income, have the desire and the right to care for their families, have meaningful work, and participate in the community. We can choose to view these conditions as motivation for why we must take care of one another.

Internalizing the pain that these families and individuals feel, day after day, is an occupational hazard that we can’t completely avoid. Sometimes these feelings can seem like a burden too great to bear. Compassion fatigue is very real, and we must always remain mindful of the need for rigorous self-care. But it is important not to ignore these instincts, as it exactly these feelings of empathy and care for others that are at the root of our profession, and that can serve as a call to act. I would encourage us to use these experiences and our reactions as ammunition to become better helping professionals.

These interactions can provide us with needed inspiration to keep going in our pursuit of social justice. In daily practice, there are small opportunities. We can provide families with information on free community events so parents can still feel the pride and joy of giving their child a new experience. We can organize a clothing swap among low-income clients to share gently used items. If there are no options for free diapers in our community, we can work to create one. When interacting with clients, we can consider the physical, cognitive, and emotional implications for those living a life clouded by scarcity. More broadly, we can bring these issues to light to our decisions makers, locally and beyond, in the hopes of developing sustainable solutions.

Written by Rose Frech, MSW, LSW

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Rose Frech is a an Assistant College Lecturer at Cleveland State University in Cleveland, Ohio and serves as Vice-President of the Board of Directors for NASW’s Ohio Chapter. She has experience in direct practice, management, applied demographic research, advocacy, and policy analysis, and is passionate about raising awareness around issues of poverty and inequality.

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