My friend, Tom, wanted to do something nice for me while Julie was hospitalized. He surprised me by taking me to breakfast at our favorite spot in the West Loop. There was a problem on I-290, so we exited the expressway in Oak Park and treaded down Madison Avenue.
As we crossed Austin Avenue into Chicago, I was immediately struck by a drastic change. The streets were dirtier; the buildings were in poorer repair. More shocking were the types of businesses, both present and absent. Many fast food restaurants, pre-paid cell phone stores, haircare stores, and storefront churches existed. Although we were driving on a major thoroughfare, I saw no real grocery stores, hardware stores, or other typical shops that were present just west of Austin in Oak Park. The difference was very pronounced. Eventually, we arrived in the toney West Loop—a place of trendy apartments, fabulous restaurants, and well-manicured streets. I have to admit that I felt a sense of relief as I entered familiar territory. However, I also felt a sense of shame.
I write this post from my study, a room in my house dedicated to me. Next to me is a mullioned window that overlooks a beautiful suburban street. Within a 10-minute drive from my house are at least ten different grocery stores and five gigantic hardware stores. I can access every restaurant imaginable at that same distance, from ethnic to upscale. I drive a nice car and moan that I just spent almost $2000.00 to repair it, but I could afford it. My kids got to go to some of the best schools in the country, and our town’s library is considered the best of any community of its size. Our city parks are safe and well-equipped. The sports teams have the latest gear. The schools have the best lab equipment, computers, smart boards, and teachers.
Not bad for a once blue-collar kid who worked hard and had a dream, but hold on, that is not where I’m going.
Yes, I worked hard to get to where I am. Yes, I sacrificed a lot to get there. Yes, my current life is better than my childhood life. So that’s the answer. Poor people are poor because they are lazy, stupid, and immoral. Oh, and of course, they are all dangerous criminals. Just watch YouTube to see those scoundrels shoplifting. Stores are closing because everyone who goes into them steals something. Why don’t they work hard like I did? It is not my responsibility to help them out. I advanced my life; they should do the same. Haven’t they heard about pulling themselves up by their bootstraps? Geez!
Of course, I’m being sarcastic. Each barrier that we place takes energy and effort to overcome. Place enough obstacles, and escape is almost impossible. My blue-collar childhood was nothing like I saw in Chicago’s South Austin neighborhood. I lived in a house we owned; there was a branch library, grocery store, drugstore, and hardware store around the corner. We always had food on the table. My parents were invested in my education. I had older siblings who I would emulate. My growing up was not deluxe, but compared to someone growing up in poverty, I was living the life of a millionaire.
What would it be like to take several buses to just buy a gallon of milk? What would it be like to live in a neighborhood ruled by gangs, where police are viewed with fear instead of welcomed as peacekeepers? What would it be like to grow up in an unstable family or with a parent working multiple jobs just to put food on the table? What would it be like to live in a neighborhood where dropping out of school was the norm? What would it be like not to know how to appropriately fill out a college application and be unaware of who to ask for help?
These are just a few things people in poverty must deal with. My kids grew up with a highly educated stay-at-home mom. Their lives were enriched in every way possible. They were provided with experiences at every turn. Yes, they are bright and work hard. However, their energy could be devoted to academic pursuits rather than figuring out how to get food for supper. I give them total credit for their successes. However, their paths were greased by privilege.
It is easy to blame people experiencing poverty for being poor. It is easy to look at a small minority of criminals and vilify an entire group. It is easy to look the other way. But at what cost? I don’t know how to fix this problem, but I know it is a problem.
My good friend Ralph just sent me a link to a podcast that explores some barriers to people who strive to extricate themselves from poverty. It approaches the topic in a way I had not thought of before. It is an excellent podcast and a good listen, so I am sharing the link with you.
Link to podcast below: