Paradox of Poverty

As we were first hit with instense heat and humidity this morning and then tropical-style storms in the afternoon, I spent much of today inside tending to office tasks, one of which was to research how to get my brother on Medicaid so that we might help him lift himself out of a deep and bottomless depression. He’s been out of sorts for almost all of his life. He is a hoarder, a hermit, a social recluse and an angry, dry drunk. Until this week. He’s started drinking again, and this time I had to take action.

These days I am poor; regular readers know my plight – yet I’ve worked to glean what help I can from the systems that have been set up to help folks in my position. Through state assistance I’ve kept us fed and warm. But it was not entirely easy. I’ve often said that being poor is a part-time job. It takes a certain drive and tenacity to fill out all the necessary forms, make and keep appointments with case workers, let alone travel the distance to simply get to the office to which you must apply in person. My brother isn’t able to do any of this for himself. And he really has no true advocate to help him navigate the process. Our mother loves him dearly of course (what a new perspective I have on this situation just considering how I might feel were Elihu one day in Andrew’s position) but her role in this has been to feed him, to keep him alive. That is also, sadly, the role of enabler. Shortly after I moved here and learned the ropes of the social services world,  I got Andrew set up with food stamps. He’s long since let them lapse. Easy to do when mom is making his one meal a day. So today my mission was to re-establish his food stamps and get him some health insurance. It was a project perfect for the day’s inhospitable weather.

It’s ironic that the people who need and qualify for assistance can’t often muscle through the process required to actually get the benefits that were created for them. Those who love someone who is mentally ill have their hands tied; unless the person in need makes the effort to get help, none will come. To get help requires a 911 scenario, literally. All the folks I’ve talked to today told me again and again that the only way to get him hospitalized was to call 911 at his next violent episode, and he would be taken to the ER. This is nonsense! You mean to tell me that we can’t stop the train before it leaves the station, but instead we have to wait til it rolls off the tracks at high speed before we can get help? If the troubled soul can’t do it on his own, the laws prevent anyone else from doing so on his behalf. I can understand it’s designed to protect that person from being placed in a situation against his own free will, but often those who are so badly off can’t fully appreciate that they need help. And so they will rarely volunteer themselves to the appropriate programs. I mean really, if someone is depressed and can hardly wake up, get dressed and feed himself, can we expect him to have the drive to jump through all those hoops? No. And so today I began to navigate the labyrinth of the system so that somehow, through some tiny window I can manage to coax my brother into the help he desperately needs. It was a good day. I did find new resources, new tactics. Hopefully by this time next week Andrew will be in a hospital and on his way to a much healthier and happier version of himself. There are rules, laws, protocols, yes – but there’s also the power of a strongly motivated sister who loves her brother and will keep swingin til she hits a line drive through a break in the defense. We’re much closer today than we were yesterday.

And as for my own paradoxes, they have me a shakin my head. Recently, we were at risk for losing both our electricity and then our phone and internet. And I simply did not have the money to pay them. I was desperate, and pleaded with the woman not to shut off our power the next morning (by some divine intervention the cutoff was postponed 12 hours due to a technicality.) I gave up, accepted that we’d be camping for a while, then hung up. But then it hit me: I have a legally blind child living with me. I called back. Asked them what if I had a blind child in the home? What then? You know what? The whole game changed. Because Elihu is legally blind, the electric and cable company have rules in place to keep our services in place for an extra grace period. !! What a flash of inspiration – but how ironic. My kid can see, but imagine the irony of a totally blind kid having the lights cut off. Not such a big deal, huh? Made me laugh. Course then I pointed out to the woman on the phone that a child without any disabilities still needs to eat just as much as the blind one – and ya can’t do that without power! No fridge, no stove. Ya know? Crazy. But if my dear son hadn’t been ‘blind’, we’d have lost our services. Thanks, kid.

There’s another side to the paradox of poverty: the poor man’s diet packs on pounds. When you have a tight budget for food, what thrifty staples come to mind? Ramen? Pasta? Dry beans? Rice? Bread? Yup. Those things are affordable and can last in a pantry. Fresh produce? A luxury. Meat? We can’t both afford to eat it. At the start of each month when my food credit is given to me, I always go overboard on produce. I am renewed, hopeful. This time we’ll eat right. And it feels great to buy my son his favorite blackberries and grapefruits, my favorite arugula and broccoli. But I simply can’t keep it up all month, for by the second week I’ve spent more than half the month’s food money on produce. Mid month I pull way back, and some days we skip the fruits and vegetables so that we can buy meat. You’d think I’d have figured out how to even it out – so that we have more of a healthy mix throughout the month, but alas, I haven’t. And there’s never enough to make it four whole weeks. So in the end we’re back to pasta, ramen, bread. Ich. Poverty and pounds seem to go hand in hand. At least for me. I have to figure this out. I’m poor, yet you couldn’t tell by my girth. Or maybe you could. Yup, it costs more to eat right. To eat well. So here I am, like the old 80s song lyric  “under nourished and over fed”. What an insightful man that Rick Springfield.

Surprisingly, poverty has made some things possible that otherwise might not have been. The big one – the biggest, most positive change in our lives might not have been open to us had we fallen in that nether land of the not-quite middle class. I don’t think Elihu would be attending the Waldorf School had we had just a bit more money in our budget. Seriously. He’s there precisely because we are poor. We easily qualified for generous tuition assistance.  I think of that often, and it has me reconsidering whether this great change of life might not have come with some incredible blessings.

Also, we live on a gorgeous piece of land. I’ve found business cards in my mailbox asking me to contact them should I ever want to sell. People casually tell me to remember them if I change my mind. Forget it. This corner of the world might be the best blessing of em all. Again, there’s an irony here too; while I look out to a great vista and can see no neighbors from my spot, I cannot afford to cut the grass, so it shortly becomes covered in knee-high grass. The grass grows tall around my lawn chairs and sometimes hides the rim of the trampoline. Looking out I sigh at the disparity between my inner vision of what this place could look like and what it looks like now. Elihu, however, loves the grass. It makes the place feel magical to him (consider how tall the grass must appear to him!) and almost always cries when I have it cut. Last time I had the place spruced up for his party, he followed the lawn guys around pointing out clusters of flowers to avoid as they mowed. So he’s happy, that’s for sure. So for the time being, I try to look at this as a wild meadowland. Changing how I think about it, I can appreciate it much better, and it takes away some of the guilt I can feel about not keeping the place up as I would if I had the means.

There are a couple of things that act as great levelers in the world: becoming poor and getting sick. All of a sudden priorities change and whatever might have been a mere detail of your old life-as-usual now becomes a treasure, an extravagance even. I may have had an idea of the value of things in my own world long ago – but until I was faced with the prospect of having no food or heat, I didn’t fully appreciate how good it is to have those things in place. I know the true value of simple things now.  I also have arthritis in my fingers these days – it seemed to have really gotten much worse over the past six months. Now my hands often ache. So on days when they don’t – oh how happy I am! I know how wonderful it is when your body works without a hitch.

A little change of circumstance can bring out a healthy change in perspective. I would never have known the deep joy of gardening or raising chickens or building things with my own hands had I not been thrust into this life. I’d never imagined myself living a life other than the middle class white suburban experience that I’d always known. But man am I glad I’ve had this chance. I’m poor, but I’m not. Crazy, huh?

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