Friday, July 3, 2015

Underneath the Surface of Poverty

Poverty has one particularly damaging power: the ability to strip layers of your identity away, until you are merely a label.

Ezekial's story illustrates this point well. He came into my office with his youngest son asking for assistance with rent. A few months of unemployment had spiraled his family into debt.  The couple and four children were short on food, behind on every bill and wondering if I had any laundry detergent.

If we stop here, we might see a typical narrative: job loss, debt, a request for charity. Voila! Welcome to poverty! But if we dig deeper...

Ezekial told me he had been working for a well-known manufacturer in town for almost a year.  He reported long days, overtime with no complaint, and pleased-as-punch supervisors. But when the year was over, his temp agency did not renew his contract.  He was let go without warning, and unlike a lucky few, the manufacturer overlooked him for direct hire -- a move that would have guaranteed steady pay and benefits.  (An alarming 42% of temporary work is now light industrial or warehouse work.  Jobs that used to guarantee a middle class stability are now "tightrope" jobs without a safety net. Click here for a good article describing this trend.)

Fortunately for Ezekial, he was able to find another job relatively quickly.  His wife had also started a job the same week.  I expressed joy at this news, but his face didn't reflect the same happiness.  He had promised her she could pursue her education full time while he supported the family. He didn't want her to work yet. "She has had such a hard life. I wanted to give her a chance to be educated. I hope she doesn't give up."

Impressed with the way he supported his family, I asked Ezekial about his own past. He immigrated 10 years ago from Nigeria with his parents to escape the violence there.

"What did you do before you came here?" I asked.

"I was a pilot."

At this point in our conversation, Ezekial's young 18 month-old had had enough.  He started squirming and slipped out of the chair. Crying ensued. Ezekial patiently picked him up. "Tut-tut...I told you to sit still." He tenderly wiped the child's face. "I work at night and watch him during the day while the other children are at school and my wife is at work."

"When do you sleep?" I asked. (At this point, I was more than a little impressed with this quiet, unassuming man.)

"When he does," Ezekial said, giving his son a squeeze. "But I don't mind.  His smile keeps me going and makes me feel like it's all worth it."

I certainly want to believe that it is all worth it for Ezekial's sake. I want to believe that he can peel away the stress and havoc that poverty can cause, because underneath the label is a beautiful human being -- a patient father, a supportive husband, a trained pilot, a dedicated worker. I am honored to know him.