I was thrilled when my son started at his very diverse school where he entered kindergarten. I believed we were exposing him to a world that better mirrored his own. On week two, he had come home and was sitting at the counter when I said something that I am want to say about food. “We can’t afford to throw away food in this house.” To which my son responded glibly, “What? Are You Poor?”
Where did he get this from, I wondered.
I looked at him and instant presto went into life lesson mode, saying, “No, luckily I, meaning you, are not poor. But you say poor as if there is something wrong with it. Do you know there are a lot of people in the world who do not have food on their table for every meal and there are some kids who go to bed hungry? Do you think it is smart to speak disparagingly of the poor? Do you realize how lucky you are that you have food on your table?”
He quickly changed the subject. But the poor is a subject. It’s a subject much as race is when I speak to parents about raising children to be tolerant and to be worldly.
THE POOR DO NOT WANT OUR PITY, NOR DO THEY DESERVE OUR SCORN.
A long time ago, before my son was born, before I became a mother, I was very interested in poor children and how to help them. I got together with another woman and we began brainstorming about how we could make a difference in a child’s life by either providing clothes or food or resources. My friend and I had plenty. We were living in San Rafael, in one of the richest counties in America, Marin County, and our cup was full. When I would think about a child who did not have three square meals or adequate clothes to go to school, I felt I could really help. And I wanted to really help.
But I lived in one of the richest counties in the world and when we both went looking for ways we could help, we kept coming up short. There are not a lot of poor people in Marin County. That’s a fact. However, we did find a school that needed a rug for their reading time and we shared the cost of it. And I went about my life still thinking about how to help poor children and not doing much to in fact help any.
Later when I came home to New Orleans, I thought about a mobile library that would go to where poor families lived and have story time on Saturday with healthy snacks. When I looked into the possibility of this, it became clear that I did not know anything about the communities I wanted to serve. In my vision, I had already failed by not knowing enough to be invited in to help, but rather assuming I knew how to help. White privilege. Naiveté. Ignorant. Lack awareness. All of the above.
Then I adopted my son, and it became very clear that because he is African American, a lot of people believed I had “saved” him from a world of poverty. And I began to think more deeply about what it means to be poor, about who is poor, and about how we view the poor. When I lived in Central America as a child, I bore witness to poverty on the streets of Managua and San Salvador. Women covered in filth, with emaciated babies at their breast, sitting on a cardboard pallet begging for food while the haves passed them by on the way to long lunches and executive jobs. In hindsight, the poor here in the United States do not look like the poor there. The poor in Central America were destitute. I started thinking about the poor here, the ones that don’t look like those families on cardboard pallets, the ones that every day work multiple low wage jobs to make ends meet and put food on their table and raise their children. I thought about America’s poor. I thought about the very definition of poor.
According to one website, 12.9 million children go hungry in America. The absurdity is uniquely American, because at the same time that these kids starve, 100 billion pounds of food goes to waste every year. Nicholas Kristof says in a NYT article that there is scientific proof a child growing up poor suffers lifelong hardship. Of these children, there is also a disproportionate number who are African American: 33.1% African America versus 13,5% white. In the foster to adoption pipeline, there are more children of color waiting for families, which is how my son and I met. Neither one of us was optimum in the adoption pipeline – an older white single mother and an infant African American male – so we were perfect for each other.
After a while, I began to think more about his birth mother and the cycle of poverty she was born into and remains in today. Was my son truly saved? Where was his dark skinned mother with her large black eyes reflected back at him? Where was her rhythm and voice he had learned in utero? Where was the extended family of dark skinned, nappy haired, half siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins for him to join? Would he have been “poorer’ with his family? That would depend on what currency we are using when we make that assumption.
My first husband’s parents were poor when his maternal, childless aunt was murdered and left all of her wealth to his family. His mother would often tell me they went from being a poor and happy family to running a full blown restaurant and having property and money galore. Did it make them happier – she insisted no, it had not. She would often recall when she and her husband worked odd jobs to supplement their income – they delivered newspapers in the morning before their day jobs, while one of the older kids watched the younger ones – how they would stop and eat fresh, crisp apples on the hood of the warm car before daybreak. Yes, a romanticized version of poverty, but no less singular than its vilification.
I speak in workshops about minding the gap – the one that forms in children’s minds between what they see and what they are told. The way a child will see a neighborhood with lawns that are unkempt, houses that need painting, cars that need repairing, and will assume the people who live in this area did something wrong, are not as good as his family or friend’s families, because they are living in poverty. It’s something few parents point out to their children, that these people with fewer resources have not done anything wrong except live their lives the same as us but with fewer resources. How they work multiple jobs and cannot afford to have their lawns mowed, their houses fixed, their cars repaired and they do not have the time to do it themselves. They are surviving.
My son and I are lucky, but he is not luckier because he was adopted; his adoption has paved his journey in life, a path that will be a challenge, as it is for most transracial adoptees. Meanwhile, his birth family who continue to toil in poverty, do everything that we do as people, as a family, only they do it with much less resources. On any given day they laugh, they cry, they grieve, they rejoice, and they live on a lot less than most of us do. When you drive by their house, do you pity them? Do you blame them? Do you value them? The way you answer these questions says more about you than them.
If there were world enough and time, I would … . [fill in the blank].