Friday, July 27, 2012

Poverty Is Relative.

When we lived in Spain, my wife often told our kids that they couldn't have (fill in whimsical desire) because we were poor. I didn't like when she said that. It was true that we never seemed to have any money. Most everything we owned was from a town-run second hand shop called Dexailles. We couldn't afford to go on vacations, and there were entire years when we would buy clothes for the kids, but not for ourselves. Most of my sweaters had holes in them.

My dad gave me the best definition of poverty I've ever heard, which I still use as a yardstick: you're poor if you don't have enough to eat. Growing up during the depression, he said his family was never poor, but my mother's family was. He said she always worried about money, even though my dad's butcher shop provided them with a comfortable income. All I knew as a kid was that every Christmas I received more toys than I asked for.

spanish soup, neckbone soupWe always had enough to eat in Spain. I learned to stretch a whole chicken into four separate meals, but they were good meals: first night was roast chicken with rice, second night was leftovers (okay, not so good), and the last two nights were chicken soup. I learned that lamb shanks and neckbones added a lot of flavor, and were pretty cheap to buy.

I try to instill in my kids the idea that they should be happy with whatever they have, but it hasn't gained traction yet. If we're driving on the highway, they'll point to a shiny SUV or sportscar and say, "C'mon dad, admit it. Don't you wish you had that car?"

My trusty Subaru station wagon is 15 years old, and runs like a top. It's the most reliable car I've ever owned, hands down. I tell them that the goal of an automobile is to get from point A to point B; $5,000 or $50,000 gets you to the same destination. That doesn't wash with them.

suburbia, white-bread, generic house"But don't you want to look cool?"
"I don't have to look cool...I am cool."
"Yeah, okay, dad..."

On one of those occasions, we were driving up to see my best friend, Tom the Fireman, who also has kids. They live in a rural area 70 miles north of the Bronx, in a comfortably bucolic, two-story ranch. A few years ago Tom finished his basement; he picked up a couple of comfy sofas and a large-screen tv. There's a beautiful pool table down there as well--a fireman friend of Tom's won it in a raffle, but it wouldn't fit in his house.

My kids were amazed at the seeming opulence. "These people are rich, dad. How come we can't live in a house like this?"

Two short weeks later, my son had a friend over at our "poor" house in the Bronx. After the boy left, my son told me, "He asked if we were rich, because I have an X-box, a Playstation, my own computer and my own room. Can you imagine?" The boy lives in a small apartment with his parents, sharing a bedroom with his younger brother.

inner city, NYCHA, ghettoToday I had to do Census fieldwork, in a part of the Bronx that frankly, I detest. There is a square swatch of real estate a few blocks east and north of Yankee Stadium that's far from any highway; there are no parks,  private homes or cultural attractions. It's basically a bleak, barren, inner city landscape of projects and apartment buildings, run entirely by the New York City Housing Authority. If I stop in a local store, people first stare at me, then the ID badge hanging from my neck. Maybe they wonder what type of employer or agency would send a white guy there.

Some of the surveys I do actually ask the respondent if they have enough to eat; I'm always shocked when the person says no, although I never show it. I hate to admit it, but I walk back to my car faster here than I do in other neighborhoods. It's not that I fear for my safety; I just can't wait to escape the hopeless, dead-end vibe I'm surrounded by. It's like I'm afraid I'll get trapped there somehow, or the penury will rub off on me like a contagion. I often turn up the volume on the Subaru's radio when I drive away, trying to block out any sensory osmosis that might endanger my own comfortable existence.

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