Stop Complaining About People in Poverty (At Least Around Me)


I was out shoveling the snow a few days after the most recent blizzard, and it gave me a chance to catch up with my neighbor Aaron. He lives across the street. He’s an older, African-American fellow, really nice, and we always wave and chat for a bit when we see each other.

Anyway, we were out there shoveling, and he was telling me about how he has to get up at 4am to catch his ride to go for dialysis. His kidneys are failing. He had gotten the call just the other week that they had a kidney for him, but then plans changed, and it didn’t happen.

“Man,” he said, taking his time with the shovel, “I went all day without eating or drinking. Then they called and told me I couldn’t have that kidney.”

He shook his head with disappointment.

“That must be rough getting up at 4:30 in this,” I said, motioning to the mountains of snow. “Must be cold at 4:30.”

“Nah,” he said, smiling. “By 4:30? Things are starting to warm up that late in the morning.”

He laughed and shook his head, as if he couldn’t believe how gullible he was, believing his own words.

* * * * *

I walked across the street and gave my shovel to a woman trying to clear her sidewalk of two feet of snow with a dust pan.

“Looks like you could use this,” I said.

She smiled.

“I have to keep this sidewalk clear,” she said, embarrassed that she had to accept my simple offering. “My friend has a lot of medical issues. I have to make sure she can get out to an ambulance, if she needs to.”

“No worries,” I said. “If you need anything, let me know.”

* * * * *

I noticed an older woman two houses down. She was really struggling to clear the snow, so I went down to help her, and we started talking.

“My doctor said it’s okay for me to shovel snow, as long as I take lots of breaks,” she said.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“My husband and I, we both have cancer,” she said quietly. “But I’m doing better.”

* * * * *

This city is full of people in poverty. When you live in among them, when you become friends with them, when you see how hard they work and how little they get in return for that work, it will change the way you think about poverty. It will change the way you think about things like food stamps and disability, minimum wage and benefits.

I know single moms who walk their kids through the snow in the early morning dark, over a mile, just so they can get them to preschool. Then they walk to work at McDonald’s or the convention center or wash dishes for $8.75 an hour. They work as many hours as they can, and they’re always on the lookout for a second job.

I know dads who race home from working construction or warehouse jobs so they can coach their kid’s flag football team. The team my kid plays on.

I know parents who send their kids to these city schools, the ones we flippantly refer to as “failing schools,” because they don’t have other options. They don’t have the money for private school. They’re not in that massive place of privilege you have to inhabit to be able to homeschool. And they stay up late helping their kids do homework, and they wake up early and do it all again. Every. Single. Day.

* * * * *

Don’t talk to me about the people gaming the system. Don’t talk to me about how we should be drug-testing everyone on food stamps. Don’t talk to me about how the economy would collapse if we raised the minimum wage.

I’m tired of listening to my right-wing conservative friends complain about people in poverty while drinking their boutique beer and Instagramming their latest vacations. We live in a dream world, my friends. Of the billions of families on this planet, we were born into a place of extreme wealth. We’ve been given opportunities beyond most people’s wildest dreams.

If we choose to squander those blessings by sitting in cafes and restaurants with our buddies and arguing over theory, arguing about the latest political situation, arguing over why “those people” are taking taking taking too much, well, I’m afraid we will have hell to pay. If not today, someday.

If you have a problem with people in poverty, stop complaining about them. Partner up with them. Make yourself useful.

* * * * *

My friend Aaron got real quiet while we were shoveling. I looked over at him, and I was sweating under all my winter clothes. He stuck his shovel in the snowbank and gazed down the street.

“I sure would love to get out of the city, though. Get a place with a little more space, somewhere there’s not traffic going by all the time.”

His voice trailed off.

“Gotta get this kidney taken care of first, I guess.”

He picked up his shovel, and he went to work clearing a bank that was way taller than him, a bank he could barely see over.

18 Replies to “Stop Complaining About People in Poverty (At Least Around Me)”

  1. YES!
    this is why we offer lunches at city gate, give out free clothing, warm blankets, free coffee – we sit and share life with them – we offer relationship – a place to rest and ask –

  2. Yes. It pains me that the right wing has cast all people in poverty as lazy people who just want to game the system to live life on other’s hard work. It’s so not true. But unless you roll up your sleeves and work with them or hang out with them or used to be one of them, it’s easy to believe the hype.

  3. Good article…just wondering why it was even necessary to mention Aaron’s race followed by, “really nice.”

    1. I didn’t mean for “really nice” to be a qualifier of “African-American,” but it very well could be some inadvertent racism on my part. I grew up in a very white environment, and some of the stereotypes I was fed run deep inside of me. Thanks for your comment, though. I do appreciate being called out on these things.

      1. Mr. Smucker,
        I have never commented on a blog let alone responded to someone’s reply. I would just like to say that I am humbled by your inteospective response to Lily. It was honest and open and I thank you for it. I’m sure you didn’t do it for praise but it was one of the best things I have read in a while relating to racism and our human experience. Maybe I’m being too deep. Anywho… thanks for your transparency. Thanks for your post.

  4. I’m sorry to be a downer here but not every family who home schools is inhabiting a place of massive privilege. I was raised in an inner city neighborhood with a crack house across the street because that’s all my parents could afford. Dad and Mom, who barely had two cents to rub together, home schooled four kids because the schools were so crime ridden, they were terrified to send us there. Someone tried to kill a man on our front porch, I was nearly abducted, my brothers were beat up because they were white {surprise, I grew up as a minority, imagine that}. We lived below the poverty line for nearly my entire childhood with dad working two and three jobs for years, still barely making ends meet. There were MANY times we ate nothing but oatmeal and rice for weeks and weeks. I wouldn’t say we were inhabiting a place of massive privilege. It’s great you live in the city and are reaching out to your neighbors…but unless you have lived poverty-stricken yourself {and maybe you have, I don’t know}, perhaps you can temper articles such as these with a bit more grace. From my perspective your “stop complaining about poverty {at least around me}” article sounds condescending and written from a place of…privilege.

    1. Yes, I am writing from a place of great privilege. I definitely agree with you. And we also homeschool our kids. It seems to me that any family who can spare an adult in the house to teach their kids while still having food on the table and a roof over their heads is, when compared to the rest of the world, privileged indeed. Perhaps this is a gross mischaracterization.

  5. You nailed it Shawn with the Partner Up concept. That is the only way we make a real difference. It’s easy to throw money, food, and our leftover home goods at the problem. However, those are short term fixes. In order to see real change we have to give of our most valuable asset, our time and talents. There is large divide between the haves and have nots in this country. We need the haves to start taking an active role in building a bridge with the have nots.

  6. Thank you for this. I live in an area that many people in the bubble of privilege wouldn’t want to visit, never mind live in. The things that people say to me about my neighbors boggle my mind. You put words to the fire that rises in me when I hear such things.

  7. Howdy Neighbor!
    I happened onto your blog from a friend’s facebook post. I live over on Liberty. Thanks for sharing your thoughts; I relate a lot to what you’ve said. I’ve found a shift in empathy since moving into the city back in ’08. Growing up in the country side, even though we didn’t have much by most folks standards, still left a disconnect between my experience and the struggles that so many shoulder nobly in the urban environment. Moving in and forging relationships is the surest way to challenge one’s unconscious preconceptions. I know you were describing your own block, but reading it I kept replacing the faces in my mind with those on our little stretch of W. Liberty. God Bless!

  8. Amen. Most people living in poverty work much harder than I do and get far less. It’s time to change the way we engage with people living in poverty if we want things to get better.

  9. So thought provoking that I must comment. Lack of choices is one of the definition for poverty. If those with privilege would chose to give things they think they must keep and share, engage and invest, their time and talents serving others, what a better world we would live to see. We are all living in poverty, for some its of heart. I will stay vigilant and keep thinking of a better way to live. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Very well said. I am one of “those people.” I am on disability and I wish people understood how difficult that can be. I only disagree with you on one small thing. You don’t have to be privileged to homeschool, though most homeschoolers are. I did it with a library card, and a lot of sacrifice. Thanks again for speaking out.

  11. Thanks Shawn, with a last name of Smucker I expected your compassion to show up in the Blog.
    I have friends who are Smucker’s and they have compassion and social justice as the high points that govern their living styles. At this time of political turmoil and the continually harping about food stamps, homeless, and welfare It restores my faith to have someone stand up tall -regarding these issues. Jesus set the example but Christians are still wrestling with the issues of loving our brothers as we love ourselves. Thanks and keep it up. Larry Beachy

  12. I’ve known some pretty poor families who home school. I’m not saying there isn’t a place where it’s just not financially possible…I just think more people than you might imagine make it work when they’re a long way off from massive privilege.

    I also think… there are a lot of hard working decent people who are poor and need the help of their government and their neighbors. And that’s nothing to look down on. But when conservative, right wing people complain about people gaming the system – we’re almost never (if ever) talking about actual poor people. We’re talking about people who make the same amount of money as we do (or more!) who defraud the government and their fellow Americans by pretending to need government assistance.

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