Friday, June 20, 2008

On poverty

When we visited my in-laws on Father’s Day, we told them we planned to rent our house.

Be careful, my mother-in-law said. Her parents had rented their home in North Carolina while the family moved for a time to southern Virginia in the 1930s. The man they entrusted to collect the rent and pay the mortgage kept the money. Before her parents realized what had happened, the bank had foreclosed on their house.

People were desperate for money in the Depression, my mother-in-law said.

The rent for the house would have been paid in cash and probably hand-carried to the bank. For a poor person, the temptation to pocket the cash would have been huge.

Years ago, my father and I were watching a Depression-era movie, perhaps Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. I asked why the movie was making such a big deal out of someone writing a check. A check would have communicated his wealth to the audience, my father said, because people didn’t have checking accounts back then.

No checking accounts? I asked, puzzled. Why not?

Because people in the Depression were so desperate for money that the banks knew they would have just written bad checks, he said.

Both my father, who would be 84 were he still alive, and my mother-in-law, who is 87, talked about desperation for money offhandedly. They mentioned it as a fact about the Depression so ingrained, so given, that it was weird even to have to put it into words.

That kind of desperation is something I --and I imagine many of my peers -- can’t really comprehend. While we’re all aware that there are people in this country living in miserable conditions, such as the homeless or those old women you read about sometimes with roaches crawling all over them, we see these as fringe instances, due to mental illness, addiction, old age, failures in social service safety nets, etc. We know people are desperate in other countries, but that's removed from us. For most of us in this country who are relatively “normal,” whatever that means, and relatively healthy, the idea of actually having no means of getting money is not quite comprehensible. We “get it” in our heads, but not in the way of the elderly women who use 40-watt bulbs and save pencil stubs because of their real knowledge that the money can run out.

We always (or I always) think: well, should some Job-like calamity hit, I can get a higher-paying job, a second job, we can run up our credit cards, declare bankruptcy, sell our house, retrench, work hard and live small for a few years ... But the idea of money, jobs and credit as not available doesn’t compute. Not really.

In Barak Obama’s Memories of my Father, he writes of living from about age 6 to 10 in Indonesia. His mother married an Indonesian man who was called back there a few years after the unrest in 1965.

1960s Indonesia was a tough place, according to Obama’s book, with no constitutional protection for people, and a great deal of illness and poverty. Obama writes of a begging woman with a nose eaten by disease coming to the door and of so many beggars that it was impossible not to harden to them. Obama went for a few years to the Indonesian schools, both because his mother wanted him to be part of the real culture of the country and because the family couldn’t afford tuition at the American school.

But after awhile, saving her son from hardening, from becoming a creature of a brutal culture, trumped solidarity with the masses. She sent Barack back to Hawaii to attend a prep school. She wanted to save him.

As I read Obama’s description of the poor people, many hungry and ill, clawing and scraping for a little bit of survival, I thought of first century Israel. Jesus probably stepped in to a similar world, similarly hardened. He must have been a revelation indeed. Stunning.

Many people I know, myself included, recoil from the brutality in the Bible. But this is the world as many people know it. I ponder this, but only understand that there are things I'm blind to because they're outside my direct experience.

I come to end of this, not sure why all this is on my mind, but there it is.

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