Being poor is not a choice
For most of my life, I have been exposed to people who believe that being poor is a choice that people make. Many people believe that the poor are a burden to the economy and should get jobs and contribute to society. I won’t get into the topic of welfare and the support of the poor, I simply want to address the idea that poverty is somehow a decision someone makes when they turn 18.
I was born to poor parents. I don’t know much about them because I was adopted. I do know that I was removed from their care by the state of Texas for neglect. I don’t know the details, but the state removed me and my sister. When the state approached the other members of the family to see if they would adopt us, they decided to keep my sister, but abandon me because I was very sick and was too young to walk (Edit: I just learned from a long lost blood relative that my maternal grandparents decided that they were too old to take care of two children). So I was cast into the Texas foster care system. My foster family was a middle class military couple with a young boy. They took very good care of me and eventually decided to adopt me. I now call them “mom” and “dad”.
They raised me with Christian values and principles. When I was a kid, my mother had a baby that was born with severe heart defects that required many surgeries and a long stay in the hospital. It decimated my father’s income. While my mother was away at the hospital with my sister, my brother and I ate boxed macaroni and cheese with hot dogs cut up in it. I learned to enjoy mayonnaise bread. I used to come home from school and make a few pieces of “sugar bread”. I would take a few pieces of bread and pour sugar on them and eat it as a snack. When my mother was home, she would cook solid meals. But one thing my father refused to accept was that he was poor. He was too proud. We did not get free school lunches, he paid for us to have school lunch every day. We still had gifts at Christmas and Easter and on our birthdays. Honestly, I don’t know how he did it.
I moved out of my parents’ house when I turned 18. I lived in an apartment with two other guys and worked at the amusement park down the road (where I met Laurie). I made some poor life decisions to make rent a few times and decided that I couldn’t afford insurance on my car. So, of course, I got arrested for having no insurance. The sheriff at the county jail ordered the other officers to move me out of the holding cell with all of the other criminals into my own empty cell with an open door. After the sheriff let me go, I had to promise the judge that I would not retrieve my beat up VW van from the police recovery yard. I got off easy because I was well dressed and well spoken. I did not “look like a criminal”.
After that, I lived with a few friends in a rental house and barely made rent every month. Since I was delivering pizza for a living, I had to “buy” a car from one of those “buy here, pay here” scams. I missed a payment and the car got repossessed. So I traded my IBM PC for a car with a salvage title. It didn’t even have keys, I started it using a screwdriver. After driving for about an hour, I had to stop and release the pressure on the radiator cap and put fresh water in it.
When I was a kid, I always wondered what my “real” parents were doing. So, when I turned 19, I decided to track them down. I had a hospital form from the days before my adoption that my parents had kept for me that had the names of my birth parents. So I got on the phone and started calling random people in Texas with the same last name as my father and mother. I found an uncle who remembered me being born and he told me where my paternal grandmother lived and gave me her name. I called her and she said something that I will never forget, “Your father likes to hurt people. I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to contact him”. I then tracked down my mother. I made arrangements to drive out to Oklahoma (from Atlanta) to meet her and my biological sister.
So, I took the license tag off my dad’s 1964 Ford Falcon, put it on my junk car, and headed off across the country. My dad gave me a gas credit card as a gift and told me not to worry about it. However, when I got to the border of Mississippi, I learned that there were no gas stations West of Alabama that I could use that card in. I had to use the little bit of cash that I had brought for food to pay for gas. I didn’t turn around and go home, I persisted. I stopped and ran through the ritual of replacing the water in the radiator through the entire trip. I ate very little. Did I mention that I wasn’t insured? I was too poor for auto or health insurance.
When I got to Oklahoma, I learned something I will never forget – no matter how poor you think you are, there is always someone in worse financial shape than you. My sister had three kids and was living off of government assistance. She lived in a trailer in the middle of the country. She was not college educated (neither was I). However, she was so excited to meet me that she took me to all of her favorite spots to meet all of her friends and brag about her successful brother. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew that I wasn’t “successful”. But she knew the truth; she knew that I had been raised far away from the life she had grown up in. She knew that I had the potential to make it.
After living in poverty for about 2 years, I moved back in with my parents to try again. I spent some time in school (I had to pay for it out of my own pocket) and decided to move into an apartment closer to the school with a few friends. We were all extremely poor. My roommates’ parents were paying for their college, but I was attending the technical school next door. Georgia had the HOPE scholarship back then and I was able to use that to pay for some of my school, but rent, food, and “party supplies” came out of my paycheck. I didn’t have a car, so I was having to ride public transportation to work. I worked at a place that delivered steak, and the owner had a vehicle that he let me use to make a living. Our apartment complex was dangerous. We regularly heard gunshots and the kids played in the dumpster for fun. One night, one of our friends was robbed at gunpoint right outside our apartment for his $12 watch.
One day, the manager at the restaurant was doing donuts in the parking lot in the company vehicle and tipped it over. The owner decided to get rid of it. That meant that I could no longer count on the tip income from delivery. The owner let me keep my job, but I had to come in early in the mornings and prepare salads. He also let me earn extra money by hanging coupons on people’s houses. I was now desperately poor. We all decided that the apartments were too dangerous for us to live in, so we broke our lease, which cost us a lot of money that we didn’t have. We had to work out payment arrangements just to cover that debt. We moved to another apartment in a safer location. There was less partying and more studying in the new place.
However, things still got worse. We all had to move out of the apartment because we couldn’t afford to live there. I moved into my grandfather’s house that was empty because he was staying in an assisted living facility. One day, I wanted to connect my computer to the Internet, so I looked in the paper for an ISP that was open on Sunday. I found one and gave them a call. After a short conversation, I decided to drive to the other side of Atlanta (my dad let me drive his Ford Falcon) to sign up for Internet using the last $20 I had in my possession. After a long talk about my technical school training and the exciting “new” Internet, he offered me a job as a tech support rep. I took it.
A few months later, he sent me off to meet with one of his best clients to help him set up ISDN for his business. I was good at getting the modems to work with the flaky Bell South systems. When I got to the client, I was greeted by a very generous and friendly man. After talking to him about my dream job, he told me that he was starting up a business ministry on the Internet and needed a programmer. He offered me a job with a “real” salary, even though I told him that I did not finish school. I had never seen that much money in my life, so I accepted. I have been gainfully employed as a programmer since that day.
If not for my impulsive desire to get on the Internet back in 1995 using the last of my money, I may never have found the opportunity to escape poverty. If not for the gracious job offer of that client, I would not have escaped poverty.
I never chose to be poor, it was a natural condition. I started out with no resources and ended up using what little I had to put me in a position to accept the grace of God in the form of a job with a giving Christian. At the time, I was not a believer, I was an agnostic, not caring much about religion or the gift of grace. It was through that first job that I learned what it means to be the beneficiary of God’s grace, even if I didn’t believe it at the time. For a non-Christian, I did not relate to the vocabulary of the Christians surrounding me, and I was even offended when they opened every company meeting with a prayer. I would cringe when they would say things like, “I’ll pray for you”. Or, when they said, “thank you for everything you have given us”. I thought to myself, “God didn’t give me anything, I’ve had to work hard for everything I have”. But then that’s when I realized I was wrong. I really didn’t have anything before I “met” Christ. I was a poor, angry, sinful person who had no direction.
Poor people need help. They don’t choose to be poor. They can’t get jobs because there are no jobs to get. And when there are jobs, there are massive numbers of college graduates competing for them. Poor people don’t get to “move back in” with their parents when their first attempts at leaving the nest fail and they’re forced to regroup. Poor people can’t have checking accounts because they have no credit. If something big comes up, they are forced to use payday loans and title loans(if they’re fortunate enough to own a vehicle). The rural poor can’t get to a doctor because they don’t have reliable transportation. They have to shop for their food at the closest convenience store, where they overpay for milk and bread. And while they are there, they pick up a case of beer to make the days go by faster.
Poor people aren’t poor because they are lazy. They sit outside on their porches all day because there’s nothing else they can do. And they’re on the porch because they can’t afford air conditioning. Poor people don’t go to the doctor. They can’t afford it.
Also, do you see a pattern in my story? I survived because of the social currency I had. I got jobs through friends and evaded the brutality of the American justice system because, frankly, I was a well-dressed white kid with a charming smile who spoke in complete sentences and addressed the judge properly. I didn’t even have legal representation (I didn’t think it was necessary because I was guilty of the crime I was convicted of). Even after pleading guilty, all I had to do was write a paper on the importance of insurance and do some community service. It didn’t even “go on my record”. And, even after that, I was a repeat offender. Luckily, I didn’t get caught during my cross-country trip. But I could have ended up in a jail in some other state with no one to help me. Luck also kept me safe.