Last week I posed a question on Instagram. I surveyed to see how many of my followers would voluntarily live in poverty* for a year. The follow-up question was for those who said “no”, asking if being a community change agent would alter their answer. The 24-hour survey resulted in a close split. The split was 44 percent saying yes they could, to a 56 percent ruling out the possibility of a year under the circumstances.
I was also asked what I meant by poverty* and I planned on outlining that here. I intentionally am using an asterisk to denote I’ve got specific circumstances to my experience. So, how am I defining poverty*? It’s probably how you envisioned it– but to clarify– I will say that when I talk about it in this post, it’s solely relative to income and teeters on mental capacity, too. By design, it literally translates to “the state of being inferior in quality or insufficient in amount.” Wowzers!
“I always wanted to join the PeaceCorps. But something was always keeping me here. In Kansas City. I haven’t been able to put my finger on it just yet, but I’m convinced I’m going to help impact my city in a great way.”
There I was in a dark room, sitting in the navy blue, toddler-designed chair at work while my little friends in Room 8 were quietly napping. I was groggy eyed and had my computer before me, searching for new employment in my college’s alumni portal. (Yes…I was at work looking for new work….judge yourself.) Again, it wasn’t that I disliked my job but I was at a point where I grew complacent, and longed for heightened career outcomes. My heart was set on work in the nonprofit sector. I aimlessly skimmed many employment profiles until I came across one that was eye-catching. (FYI–the organization will remain nameless.) Their mission simply outlined their will to help our city’s families as it pertains to education. Cool, right? Cool.
Moving on to my interview process…
I have my interview with the executive director, we hit it off well (funny story–she’s actually my real boss now as they created a new position and hired me to fulfill the role in April). We chat our goals and concerns with education in our city. I voice how I’m unaware of the educational landscape in Kansas City as I went to a district that lacked school-choice, and also how I brought special insight from a low-income parent perspective given my history as an early childhood educator.
Upon closing the interview we get to the main concern–money. I’ll assume few know about AmeriCorps (the less popular community service program to the renowned and aforementioned PeaceCorps). In so many words, AmeriCorps is a federally funded entity with sub-groups under it’s name. The program I was apart of is called AmeriCorps VISTA ( Volunteers in Service to America); a year long program where corps members dedicate a year of full-time (40hr/week) volunteer service to build capacity in an underserved community. Yes, it’s a role that looks and feels like a full-time job but the catch is that under a year of service corps members are paid poverty wages. You read that right, poverty wages.
I agreed to the thousand dollar monthly stipend (pre-taxes) which barely totaled to an annual earned wages of $12,000. I’d just signed a lease and my rent was $650. The mathematical breakdown of bills was as drastic as it sounds.
I won’t bore with you any more specifics of that day, but know my life’s been changed for better or worse depending on perception.( Dear GOD a cliché to the highest power!!! )
My circle of friends unaware of the program, prior to my joining, all asked why the hell I willingly signed up to struggle. But I did and it taught me some very useful things.
Here’s what living in poverty* taught me :
- How to apply for food stamps. I remember growing up thinking that food stamps where actually a stamp like the ones I mailed my letters with. And please, save the trolling, I was a young kid. It wasn’t until one day I was with two good friends whose mother had given them the foodstamp card. They pulled it out and paid and with pleasant curiosity in my eyes I asked “wait–I thought you guys had food stamps?” The sisters giggled and explained that yes, they had “food stamps” but they weren’t actually stamps. Adult me had to gain approval from my employer to go submit my application at the social services office. This is something that I’d never imagine I’d have to do. The only word I can think of for this experience is frustrating. It was frustrating for me to go to the offices, sit and wait and then be told by the guard who saw me enter after 3:30pm that no more application would be processed that day. I mean really, you couldn’t tell me that I wouldn’t be seen today??? The cherry on top is that I had to wake up early Monday morning, make it to the offices, and then be told by the same unhelpful man that I could’ve dropped my application (the one I had on Friday) into the mailbox. Moving along in the application process, I’m then called on a Sunday morning for verification. I remember this day particularly because I was getting dressed for my niece-in-love’s dedication day at church. I almost didn’t answer but something had me so inclined to do so. I answer the call, became utterly flustered because it’s like I’m talking to a brick wall, and am late to service. A few weeks later I’m alerted that my application has been declined. Yes, declined. I cried. Not even gonna lie. I was confused and annoyed that I’d put so much energy into this application and the guy helping me was unaware of Americorps (making it difficult for him to understand) and I think that’s what caused me to be declined. I wonder should I have fought the application or not. Not wanting to on familiar support, really wanting to get an in-depth experience I got a part-time job which wasn’t abnormal for me. Since I was 18 I’ve always worked at least two places simultaneously.
- Where my privilege ended– I learned that I was both privileged and disadvantaged at the same time. I know right, who’d a thunk it? Me– a first generation high school and college grad who grew up in an privileged district– was both privileged and disadvantaged. A product of “black flight” whereas my mother decided to flea the urban core intending to set me up for academic success. Equivocally so, it’s not like I was a tax-bracket well off individual, either. I always harp on the fact that I am relatively close in nature with those of whom my work centers around as my mother was a teen mom, high school drop-out, food-service worker, and single-parent household. So many “low income” related elements weigh in on who I am today.
- Strength – there were days where I was at the office literally distracted from work wondering how I was going to pay my bills. Eyes filled with tears and a cluttered heart. Poverty took a toll on my optimal being. The mental wear of poverty, though temporary per my decision, couldn’t outweigh reality.
- Financial responsibility- I kid you not– I now have the capability of breaking down things in lbs of apples. Exhibit A: while perusing TJ Max or Target I might find a cute top. Inclined to purchase said top–post VISTA me takes a moment to calculate the amount of apples I could buy with the price of one item. Nourishment is a no-brainer so I portray an abnormal self-control in the name of apples.
Now, given all the facts and anecdotal evidence I’m frequently asked how my year of service was. I never give a straight answer, either. I firmly believe that it was the right decision, utterly timely for me, but I always state that it’s not designed for everyone. Weighing in on my year in poverty has been a taxing consideration. I’ve found myself both overwhelmed and underwhelmed with the program. I’ve found myself eager to spread the word of the program and how my peers can make a difference. Most outlandishly, though, I’ve found myself frustrated with not having a solution for the alleged “war on poverty.”