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Poverty's Handmaidens 

Exhaustion and anger -- don't let them destroy you

First, thanks to everyone who has taken a moment to say nice things about this column. I try to add to my observations with suggestions for action; we need to know what we can do if hope can continue to exist. Also, knowing humor beats cynicism for company, I try to keep that in the mix.

But I also know that some days the jokes -- "I'm so poor, I can't afford to pay attention!" -- wear thin. People are struggling and as much as I rack my brain for something that's both honest and upbeat, I come up dry. Sometimes "It could be worse" fails to comfort when you know it could also be better, when a little more money could solve the problems keeping you awake at night. The propane tank reads 12 percent. The car keeps making that horrible grating noise. Baseball season's starting and your kid grew out of last year's cleats. Not life-threatening, yet, but problems needing solving nonetheless.

On paper, working less sounds easier. More time to cook from scratch, cultivate the garden, fix up the house. More time to sit down and converse with the kids instead of hollering, "Leaving for work! Love you!" up the stairs while dashing out the door. A chance to reconnect as a family. The upside of un- or underemployment.

I absolutely do treasure having more time at home (or the softball field or the beach). But "living simply" is more complicated than foregoing dinners out for dinners in and boutique shops for thrifting. Especially when children are in the mix. True, babies -- despite what marketers would have new parents believe -- don't need much. Little kids raised without TV won't even know what they're missing if you avoid the toy aisles at Target. In fact, if you keep the commercial world at bay, you can get away with second-hand clothes and minimal material stuff for years. Your kids might even prefer yard sale scores to the mall right through the teen fashion years. But they do need some stuff. And when you've just figured the budget out to the penny, and you know you only have $25 to buy groceries for the week, only to be confronted with, "Oh, yeah, I need a check for (whatever school activity/afterschool activity/fundraiser/etc.)" ... well, it's demoralizing. Clearly a better parent would not be in this situation -- so where does that leave you? Add to that the non-material demands, the emotional needs that are so important to fulfill and also hardest to cope with when under duress.

And lack of money does lead to duress, despite noble efforts to reduce its importance. "Desire is the root of all suffering," goes the saying. Sure, desiring to have a TV as big as your neighbor's can impede happiness, but desiring a roof over your children's heads and food on the table signifies a responsible parent. When fulfilling those needs grows more difficult, cash solves the food and shelter question far more efficiently than sitting under a tree waiting for enlightenment. (Sorry.) Yes, money doesn't buy everything, much of what is worth having can't be bought, yes, yes, yes. If you're poor, you know the value of appreciating life's intangibles -- that's all you have when you can't afford a meditation class.

But romanticizing poverty doesn't refill the propane tank or put new tires on the car. Accepting in your own life that your value is not dependent on your paycheck doesn't change the way people treat you when you're among the lower class. When you have to respond to every budget-challenging request for donations or socializing with "I can't afford it," you're neither as useful nor as fun as people expect. Eventually they'll stop asking, leaving you alone, a failure, and as if you don't matter as much as the folks with ready cash. This especially hurts if your financial straits are due to prioritizing time with your children over time on the job. For a society that claims to value family, we sure don't do a good job of showing it.

The toll poverty takes on your social standing is magnified in a relationship. Power issues: How often does the phrase, "Well, I'm the one paying the bills!" spew forth? Who decides how the money is spent? What happens if one partner buys something without consulting the other? Life philosophies: Do we forego fun until our savings account is bulked up? Family dynamics: If one partner is making money and the other partner is handling the children and domestic obligations, who is working harder? Joint account? Separate accounts? What does that say about you? When the bills exceed the income, who's to blame? Tensions run high, turn to fights and all those intangibles fade into the background. Instead of being able to dash out for pizza when everyone's had a long day, dinner becomes arguments and subsequent resentment over who should make another pot of pasta and wash the dishes after. Domestic harmony seems as distant as paying off the credit card bill -- and they seem inextricably, heartbreakingly linked to each other. Love might see you through, but it won't protect you from getting smashed up on the rocks along the way.

Reuters recently ran a story relating a national spike in child abuse to the U.S. economic decline. Apparently, even parents who would normally calmly redirect little Jayden from whining into playing Legos are snapping under all the pressure. Clearly, violence against children is never okay -- but almost every parent has a breaking point, even the best ones. This is especially true when external circumstances leave a person vulnerable and feeling powerless. Experiencing guilt over not being able to provide, the loathing turns first to self and then upon those within close range. Couples battle. Tempers flare. Hands are raised in anger. It's not okay and solving the problem isn't always a simple matter of finding better paying work or a new job -- but for many people, restoring financial security also restores equilibrium. Unfortunately, what passes for society's safety net better resembles a sieve -- and more and more people are slipping through.

I am hopeful this year's political shift will help on a country-wide level, though I fear for the state of California, which recently cut back even further on Medi-Cal services. In the meantime, all I can offer is take deep breaths, take walks, take a moment to scrawl your feelings out in a journal. Put the anger elsewhere or find a place to let it dissipate before it hits the family. More next month.

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Jennifer Savage

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