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Poverty and the crushing weight of nothing

Tribune-Review
| Thursday, December 13, 2018 3:33 p.m
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Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Clients line up as volunteers distribute food at the Westmoreland County Food Bank in February 2017.

Poverty is more than just not having money.

That might seem silly. Poverty is, by definition, “the state of being extremely poor,” according to the New Oxford American Dictionary. Poverty is a profound lack of money.

But to only think about poverty as a bank balance is to miss everything that goes along with that.

The statistics themselves are cold and hard. Poverty has a thick red line. Make $25,100 for your family of four and you are impoverished. Make $25,101 and you aren’t, not officially.

Pennsylvania’s median household income is $56,951, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The per-capita income is more than $31,000, about $6,000 more than poverty for a family. Only 12.5 percent of Pennsylvanians are listed as living in poverty. In Allegheny County, it’s 12.3 percent, but in Pittsburgh it’s 11 percent. In Westmoreland, it’s a mere 10.2 percent, compared to Wetzel County, West Virginia, just 100 miles away, where 23 percent of residents are below that line.

Being poor can be a transitory thing. Anyone can become poor if they run out of money, lose their wallet, are temporarily unemployed. Poverty, on the other hand, is a pool of sticky ooze that sucks you down the harder you struggle against it.

And it affects everything.

Poverty shapes where you can live, and how and with whom. Can you afford the security deposit for a new apartment or the down payment to buy a house?

Poverty can be a part of your relationships. Can you afford to get married? Can you afford to get divorced? Can you afford to leave if there is abuse? Can you afford not to?

Poverty is a big part of health. You may qualify for medical assistance or Medicaid, but can you actually see a doctor that will take it? According to the National Institutes of Health, poor health in kids leads to bad grades and bad jobs and a fast slide further down the poverty spiral rather than a chance at climbing a ladder.

Poverty can leave you without transportation, especially if that place where you can afford the rent is far away from the place where you can find a job.

Poverty can leave you hungry, or it can fatten you like a goose on cheap food that kills you slowly. According to the NIH, “the double-edged sword of hunger and poor availability of healthy food” is part of why poverty, obesity and diabetes often come hand-in-hand.

Poverty can make crime a reality of daily life, threatening lives and destroying families.

Poverty’s slippery tentacles can be hard to escape. Get a job? Lose your medical benefits before your new health insurance starts. Save up money to cover that period? Not allowed. Make a little more this month? It’s not worth it when you lose everything next month.

And portraying that is becoming more mainstream. A Muppet named Lily was introduced to “Sesame Street” in 2011, representing a child dealing with hunger. Things haven’t gotten better for Lily. She’s now homeless .

No, poverty is not just about not having money. Poverty can be a mental place where you learn to accept the hopelessness of your situation. Money is part of it, but a lot more goes in to the crushing weight of having nothing than just a lack of cash.

Lori Falce is the Tribune-Review Community Engagement Editor. You can contact Lori at 724-226-4664 or lfalce@tribweb.com.

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