February 11, 2022

Our Works of Charity / David Bethuram

Many lessons are learned by people who grow up in poverty

David Bethuram

Poverty in childhood and among adults can cause poor mental health through social stresses, stigma and trauma. Equally, mental health problems can lead to impoverishment through loss of employment or underemployment, or fragmentation of social relationships. Throughout my 40 years of ministry and human services, I have been privileged to have seen many people experience growing up poor. Here is one of those real-life stories.

Daniel grew up living in poverty. This was something he did not realize until he was older. He thought everyone in the city took the bus, because everyone in his neighborhood took the bus. He thought everyone in the city used the food bank, because all his friends’ cupboards were filled with the same generic government-labeled food that filled his cupboards. They all mixed water with powdered milk before they poured their bowls of cereal. They all wore off-brand sneakers and hand-me-down clothes. This was life.

Grocery shopping was his first experience understanding that his family was a little different. His mom used paper money that looked different from the paper money others in line were using. Daniel asked his mom why their money looked different. She stated that they used food stamps—that they got help so they could eat. That moment has resonated with Daniel to this day.

Daniel’s family moved when he was 11. This move really brought his poverty experience into focus. They packed their belongings, hopped on a Greyhound bus, and made the journey to a new city in a different state. He was enrolled in a new school, but nothing about it was like his old school. He began to make friends and noticed differences in the way his family dressed, and the way they talked.

Daniel went to his classmates’ houses, and no one else lived in an apartment. Their parents dropped them off at school, and most of them brought lunch from home. Daniel never brought a lunch. He always got free lunch at school. No one in his immediate family knew how to drive a car, and he never saw his friends on the city bus.

As he grew older, it became clear to Daniel that his family was poor. He started carrying feelings of shame and embarrassment. He made up stories about where his mom was employed and why she didn’t drive. He never invited friends to his house because he knew once they saw his home, they would see the stark differences in how they lived. This was how Daniel managed until high school.

In high school, he was still embarrassed and wished his family were not so poor, but he loved his mom and family and knew they had things to be proud of. His mother taught him how to love and instilled in him the pride to believe in himself. Growing up in poverty taught him empathy and perseverance. He knew he could focus on school and build a life that looked different than his childhood.

As he became a man, Daniel started understanding how his experiences enabled him to be resilient, how to persevere and how to respect people for who they are as an individual—and not by what they have. There are a lot of stereotypes placed on those experiencing poverty that do not actually come from the people experiencing it. These judgments come from people on the outside trying not to look into the experience.

Hardworking, trustworthy, reliable, clean, efficient, successful and disciplined are all words not typically associated with poverty. But those words are very much demonstrated by those experiencing poverty. Being poor does not make anyone less than someone else, and having money doesn’t make anyone better.

I am proud of Daniel, and I respect his lesson on dignity for all.

(David Bethuram is executive director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Catholic Charities. E-mail him at dbethuram@archindy.org.)

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