Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Road To Poverty

After church this morning, I filled up the tank in anticipation of picking up my daughter at Binghamton University later tonight. When I got home a friend of one of my other daughters (I have four) had stopped by to see her. She is a stylist and must work on Sundays.

He is a personable young man and stayed awhile to chat us up. He was a year ahead of my daughter in high school but got bored, so he dropped out to take advantage of the minimum wage offered at a hamburger joint.

Six weeks ago my daughter informed me about that this young man had gotten his girl friend pregnant.

This is not is a “bad” young man. He is not a criminal. He does not use alcohol or drugs. He is courteous, respectful and is very intelligent. He is also a vegan; I do not comprehend how he can work as a burger flipper. He has made a series of bad decisions in his young life and now has made another that is very different from all his prior bad choices.

He has condemned two other people to a life of grinding poverty. And if not an entire lifetime, at least a long, very difficult period of precarious, hand to mouth, daily living. These three people are on the Road To Poverty.

Out of my twenty-four years with the Syracuse Police Department, I spent twelve years in patrol; most of that on the City’s South and West sides. If you are familar with the City you know exactly what I am referring to: high crime and grinding poverty. I have entered every kind of festering hellhole you can think of. I have never lost my lunch because of something I have smelled or seen (as an evidence technician I have photographed autopsies). The closest I came to meeting Uncle Ralph was while walking up the stairs to an upper flat on the West Side. The stench was so bad I had to pause on the steps for thirty seconds until my dry heaves subsided.

This was not a crime call. There were no decomposing bodies, blood-slicked floors or crying relatives to deal with. It was a simple non-criminal complaint very much like the hundreds we get every day. The stench was rotting garbage, three or four filthy, unwashed children (I stopped counting), a massive pile of dirty clothes that filled half the living room, at least a half dozen cats and no litter box (that was what the pile of clothing was for), and a thirty-something year old single mother who had given up. After ten minutes inside the apartment, I could tolerate it. I imagine when these kids walked in the door it was the aroma of “Home Sweet Home” that assailed their nostrils.

This single memory from 1976 with its accompanying sights and smells is my everlasting Kodak Poverty Moment. There have been others, hundreds of them, but nothing like this stench.

And this is the very first image that leapt into my head when I saw Harry (not his real name) sitting at my table this afternoon. He is excited about having the baby but did not discuss any plans to marry Harriet (not her real name). Harry was proudly relating how he was going to get a tattoo of his child’s name on his chest. My wife (God bless her) commented that maybe it would be better to instead spend the money on food and diapers.

Harry got fired from one fast food restaurant last week, and just started at another one; he has résumés at other fast food establishments. Harriet is a senior in high school.

Poverty sets its own standards of failure.

They signed up for food stamps and public assistance. His girlfriend just moved in with him and he intends to work several jobs to support his new family. His father just left his wife and also moved in with him. Working two jobs, Harry figures he will have a take home salary of $400 per week. With his father kicking in to help with the rent and utilities, he figured he will only need about $170 per week to live.

Poverty is aided by programs that help people remain poor.

Harry was abandoned by his mother when he was but a child; he hasn't seen her since. She tried to contact him a few years ago, but Harry rejected her efforts. Same story for Harriet; she was abandoned by her mother when she was only an infant. Harry’s stepmother never made an attempt to get to know him; she made him sleep in the basement.

There is a pattern to poverty.

Harry has yet to start working on his GED. “With two jobs”, I asked him, “when will you find the time to work on your GED?” He did not respond.

Poverty accepts what seems to be a hopeless position. Poverty is its own excuse.

I could weep for this lad. I did not press him, as I sometimes do, to get his GED. I was too discouraged and I don’t want to make him uncomfortable in my house. He already has someone who did that; who literally drove him out of his father’s house. My wife gave him a book, “The Purpose Driven Life”, by Rick Warren. He promised to read it. We invited him to stay for dinner but he had to get ready for work.

I have seen this over and over again. Before I retired, I was seeing the arrests of young men whose fathers I had arrested. Cops with 35-40 years experience see this happen to the grandchildren of people they arrested years and years ago. There are families of crime/poverty famous (infamous?) in every city, every county across this land. Say Whatshisname to an experienced beat cop in Tacoma and he’ll recite how the father, brothers, aunts and uncles are nothing but a waste of breath. Mention Joetheragman’s family to a detective in Tampa and he’ll roll his eyes and give a disgusted snort.

If Harry and Harriet’s child is a boy, I hope they’ll name him Houdini ‘cause that kid’ll need every trick in the book to escape the same fate.


Anonymous said...

What a great post. Thanks.

Cookie..... said...

Excellent a retired co-worker of took me back to all the Jones, Smiths, Whatstheirnames and so on...yes...very good account...Cookie

Cookie..... said...

Excellent a retired co-worker of took me back to all the Jones, Smiths, Whatstheirnames and so on...yes...very good account...Cookie