Sunday, March 18, 2018

Thoughts on Poverty and Wealth--Post 1

When I wrote an article last month about canning sausage, I mentioned that Paul and I have had times when our income was very low. For example, right after we got married in 1986, I was going to college and he was making $600 a month as a Christian school teacher. Rent was $250 a month. We tithed $60 a month and saved $60, and what remained after taxes was stretched a long way. When I got pregnant a year into marriage, $60 a month went to the doctor instead of savings, and we were just barely able to pay for the hospital bill and all.

Later, when we were working in Canada, our housing and food were provided, and we got a stipend of $60 a month to cover transportation, clothing, postage, phone calls, gifts, cosmetics, household supplies, and so on.

"Extreme frugality" is an understatement for how we lived.

Eventually, things changed and now we are middle-class by the official government charts but compared to back then, I feel like we are astonishingly wealthy.

Canning that sausage and writing about it made me realize that the government charts tally only one type of wealth, and that is dollars.  Actually, there are probably a hundred different factors and resources and types of wealth that make all the difference and can either compensate for a low income or make it all a lot worse.

Such as: 
community support
family support
financial sense and skills
DIY skills
distance from work and family

Somehow the charts and the government solutions never seem to take these things into account.

I had lots of notes left over after the article was done so I decided to do a few blog posts on poverty and wealth, not to draw any real conclusions or to tell anyone what they ought to do or to try to "fix" the poor, but just as a platform to observe and cogitate.

Recently one of my daughters said, "I was reading about the teachers' strike in West Virginia, and there was a picture of the governor talking, and there was something different about him. Finally I figured out it was his teeth! You almost never see people at that level of government with bad teeth."

I think that in American society there's nothing like teeth to divide the comfortable from the struggling. I am extra aware of this because of my mom's obsession with teeth ever since she got dentures at age 17, but research backs me up.

This is a fascinating article by Sarah Smarsh about how teeth denote our class in America.

She says,

‘Don’t get fooled by those mangled teeth she sports on camera!’ says the ABC News host introducing the woman who plays Pennsatucky. ‘Taryn Manning is one beautiful and talented actress.’ This suggestion that bad teeth and talent, in particular, are mutually exclusive betrays our broad, unexamined bigotry toward those long known, tellingly, as ‘white trash.’ It’s become less acceptable in recent decades to make racist or sexist statements, but blatant classism generally goes unchecked. See the hugely successful blog People of Walmart that, through submitted photographs, viciously ridicules people who look like contemporary US poverty: the elastic waistbands and jutting stomachs of diabetic obesity, the wheelchairs and oxygen tanks of gout and emphysema.

I still have crowded, crooked, overlapping front teeth, a relic of a childhood of poverty. I sometimes wonder: should I get them straightened because we could afford it now, or should I keep them as a symbol of solidarity with the poor?

Or is it simply silly to think of spending thousands on straightening teeth at age 55 just because the society around me says it's important?

As the paragraph by Ms. Smarsh says, it's more than teeth that physically defines poverty.

My three daughters and I took an overnight trip to Seattle a couple of months ago to see a play. It was an adaptation of a middle-grade fiction book that the girls loved, and was held in a small theater at the Seattle Center.

We all like to observe people, and after the play one of the daughters remarked, "I was looking around, and I realized everyone looks exactly the same. I just knew they all had plenty of money, and not just because they could afford to attend a play.  They just had that LOOK."

A few weeks previously, when I attended Jenny's choir concert, I had looked at the singers onstage and thought, "They look like they're poor." It wasn't only because they were community college students—they also had a certain Look.

What is it?

Well, their teeth, at least sometimes.

And body weight. 

And also hair and makeup, which I don't know that much about, but the Seattle crowd looked more understated.

It was more than all that, though. Some people have always had a clear path before them, an assumption that their needs would be met as they came up, and an expectation of success. Others overcome astonishing obstacles just to attend the local community college this term. And it shows.

I feel more at home among struggling and poor than around educated and successful, but I connect most with people who have had difficult times but found a way to thrive.

So I have crooked teeth as a relic of poverty, but I also have lots of fillings, because of my dad's strange priorities. More on that tomorrow.


  1. I feel your pain [poverty] on the crooked teeth bit. I am 43 and still ask the question, "Should I get braces?" A more important expenditure always swallows up that desire/need/question. You can be sure I notice teeth because of this!

    1. Me, too. I tell myself I shouldn't be so proud as to let the looks of my teeth bother me, but it still does.

  2. Your factors that can have an impact in spite of low income are good. Three of them stand out to me. Community support, Family support, and Relationships are key factors in the alleviation of poverty. Land is another important one. I believe that poverty is the result of broken relationships, relationships that do not work for the good of everyone. Byrant Myers book "Walking with the Poor" is an excellent resource for understanding poverty and my definition of poverty comes from his book. ~merle

    1. Very interesting. I'd love to learn more about this.

  3. I love your mentioning the mindset of people who grew up "expecting their needs to be met". And, of course, its opposite. It absolutely shapes who we are for the rest of our lives. I'm 69 and can still remember a few times in my adult life when someone would say to me, "you don't have to do that if you don't want to". I was always stunned. I have spent most of a lifetime doing certain things for others I was uncomfortable or even resentful doing. I'm still working on it. It's so freeing to realize you have the right to say, "no." And I was encouraged to get braces, by a dentist, of course, when I was 55. I passed.

  4. Yes about the makeup. With poorer people, it's all about putting things on: fake nails, fancy makeup, fake tans, fancy clothes. With middle or upper class people, it's more about absence: no dirt, no flab, no skin blemishes, no aging: just one shining perfect face and body that looks effortless but is only effortless if you have perfect genes and the right lifestyle. or something like that

  5. Once again, you have read my mom's mind and put it in a blog! I always feel like I know her a little better after reading your work.

  6. Interesting thoughts on growing up poor and what our American culture decides is poverty.
    I may not have grown up as poor in things as you did, but as the oldest of seven and the daughter of a struggling farmer, I can identify. I remember sitting in school with my bag lunch of liverwrust sandwiches and longing for the fifty cent school lunches my parents couldn't afford. As a Mennonite girl I already stood out in an age of mini skirts and wearing my aunts hand me downs didn't help things. I don't remember eating at a sit down restaurant until I started dating but when we did some traveling one year we did go to some A&W rootbeer drive in. What a treat that was! By the way...Bread bags made great boot liners.
    We went to the dentist but braces were not part of the package. When I first saw your blog, the first thing that came to mind for the difference between being poor or wealthy was Teeth. I still look with longing at the beautiful teeth and smiles some have. I did need braces and as an adult I could have paid for it myself but by this time I was married and having children who needed them more. A root canal I had as a young adult on my front tooth turned it darker always making me self-conscious when I smiled. To this day one of the things to me that makes someone rich
    means beautiful teeth, and I don't mean false ones!

    1. Sorry, this should have been posted under Linda, not Lilian, my daughter

  7. Thanks for sharing this, Dorcas. I'm fortunate in that our parents took my siblings and me to the dentist. Perhaps they had learned from their own dental woes: both Mom and Dad had false teeth. Thanks for sharing.

  8. As far back as I remember I always wanted braces to pull my front two teeth together. It's not that there was a gap like I have seen people have gaps, there was just a tiny of spaces. My husband loved my teeth, said that little space made them me, and he loved me. Well, maybe 2 years after we got married I finally accepted my teeth the way they were and were perfectly fine with them. When I was 30, I got my first grey hair and also as a result from 3 very difficult pregnancies and the stomach acid I threw up hundreds of time and had weakened my teeth until they were breaking beyond fixing, I got dentures. The grey hair, I earned every one and don't pull them, unless one of the children pull one about twice a year and say Look MOm, you have a grey hair!!! The teeth, my husband misses my real teeth- in other words, the little space. I have perfect teeth, I should be happy, but they are fake!! And other complications come with me having perfect looking teeth. I have friends with very crooked teeth who I don't think of their teeth because they are smiling and kind, and I know people who have gotten their teeth straightened and whitened... and are crabs and mean. So... if you have crooked teeth, smile, be kind. Perfect teeth usually come with a high price.