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“I’ve seen the bottom, and I’ve been on top, but mostly I’ve lived in between…”

Dan Fogelberg

It’s easy to blame the victims of poverty for their state. They’re lazy. They don’t manage money well enough. They should get a better job. Those things can be true. Some of them are true of my poverty.

Sometimes it’s something else.

They get laid off. They retire. They change jobs. They have massive bills they hadn’t anticipated. Their health declines. Any of these can cause poverty. And they are, by no means, the only causes. The causes are as numerous and varied as its victims.

My own poverty is nowhere near as bad as that of most others. I have been fortunate in that I have never had to go without a home. I have never gone without food. I have always managed (even if only barely) to keep myself in the insulin I need in order to survive.

But since I can speak only for myself, I will use my own experiences to explain the spiraling effects of poverty.

I quit teaching in 2016 because I couldn’t do it anymore. I had begun to hate myself because I thought that teaching students that reading is boring was immoral. And thus began my self contempt.

Students whose eyes had once lit up with joy to start the next Sherlock Holmes story, to hear more of Shakespeare, to see if Rainsford could escape from General Zaroff, to see if Santiago could get his marlin back to shore, became students whose eyes glazed over with torpor when we had to do “Close Readings” of empty and soulless works. They soon discovered the only reason to read is to pass a mindless test on a computer.

I fought against it. My principal gave me horrible evaluations because I wasn’t a “team player.” I wasn’t tracking data. I wasn’t updating the My Learning Plan website with “artifacts” to prove that I’m good. I was too busy trying to sneak in something to spark their imaginations. By my final year, all literature had all been banned from my classroom.

Near the end of my career, I was borrowing money from places with neon signs just to make rent. I was working two jobs, and I had even found some roommates in order to reduce my expenses, but it just wasn’t possible to keep up. Why? Teachers make good money, don’t they? Uh… no. And that actually was the beginning of my spiraling poverty.

In 2005, my second marriage, in Maine, where they pay teachers well, fell apart. My father was getting old, and I knew he wasn’t going to be around much longer. I came back to Arizona to be with him while I could. And I took a cut of roughly $12,000 a year to do that.

Was that the right decision? I believe it was. You can, however, tell me that my poverty was, then, my fault. I should have stayed in Maine where they paid me a better wage. You may be right.

When I quit in 2016, I pulled the only retirement I had left, (I lost half of it in each of my two divorces) paid off the neon sign places, and I lived, briefly, the life I had always wanted to live. I went several times to California to meet one of my heroes and see him perform. I took Mom there a couple of times. I wrote a screenplay. I made videos. I slept. My depression was kept at bay, and I looked forward to each new day. My contempt for myself, now that I wasn’t doing anything I considered to be immoral, was lessening.

“You shouldn’t have done that, Fred. You should have saved that money.” That may be true. On the other hand, though I live in poverty now, I have memories of beautiful experiences I wasn’t going to have any other way. No one can take that joy away from me.

But once you’re in poverty it spirals.

You get sick and miss work, so your paycheck is short. You have to make choices about what to skip paying. If it’s your car payment, you save some money this month, but next month, you need to find twice as much, and, of course, you have to pay the penalties. Next month, your problem is twice as bad. Your budget fits one car payment, not two. So then they repossess your car.

You don’t want to lose it again, so now you have to buy the cheapest functional car you can. And you have to get it to pass emissions, which, because the car is so old, you can do only if you know a guy who knows a guy who can get the check engine light off long enough to get the guy he knows at Emissions Testing to look the other way. What is normally a $17 bill goes to $117. It’s the price of poverty.

It spirals.

And now you begin to think of yourself as being worthless. You are beneath contempt because all too often you’re begging for help. You beg from friends, from the government, from charities, and from churches. And you hate yourself for that. It’s not what a person, particularly a man in our society, is supposed to do. And your friends are kind, and the government can be helpful if you can jump through all the right hoops, and charities and churches can be nice, too. But, inside, you feel as though what you are doing is no way to live. You spent your life giving. Now you spend it taking. And that’s contemptible.

As I said, it spirals.

So, when you see someone in poverty, you don’t need to give them your sympathy or your money. But you also should try to avoid giving them your contempt. Trust me, they have plenty of that for themselves. And it’s not what any of them want.