The Face of Poverty
By Bill Shepard
How do you recognize poverty? What does it look like? Do you see it on the street where you live? Or in the marketplace where you shop? They say that it exists right here in America and perhaps on the very street where you and I live. I haven’t recognized it on my street, but that just goes to show how much a fellow’s eyes can fool him.
There was a time when poverty was more easily recognized. When I was a boy, and that was a long time ago, poverty was measured by the house one lived in, the clothes one wore, the kind of car one drove, if indeed he owned one, and even by the food that he ate!
When I saw a boy dressed in faded and patched overalls, and wearing tennis shoes (pronounced “tenny”) with his little toe sticking through a worm hole in the side; I knew that boy lived in poverty! Then when I heard that all he had to eat for dinner was lima beans and fried fatback meat, I knew he lived in poverty!
That has all changed! Today if I saw a person dressed in overalls, wearing tennis shoes, and talking about eating lima beans and fatback meat, I would call him a braggart! They say that time changes everything and I agree it has changed the look of poverty in America.
When I was a little boy, in the years of the “Great Depression Era” poverty was easily recognized. I worked at a little grocery store near our village. Fatback meat sold for a quarter and overalls were thirty-nine cents a pair. I wore patched overalls, not because they were fashionable, but because two older brothers wore them out, and then handed down to me.
There were no food banks, food stamps, and unemployment checks from the government. Folk worked at whatever job they could find and a minimum wage law had not been heard of!
All of the above and more was the face that poverty wore and it was easily recognized on any street in America. Yes, the face of poverty has changed, but one wonders how long the free ride can last.
I have read that over ninety percent of the American people have at least one TV in their house, and about that same number have more than one! Nearly every Tom, Dick and Jane has an automobile and their parents have two! A large number of homes have a computer, and nearly every member of the family owns one of those new kinds of telephones that one can talk, text, make pictures and do other things that are beyond my understanding. By today’s measurements a lot of the above is a picture of poverty in America. At least the government thinks so!
We eat so much these days that the young and old alike have an overweight problem! Instead of starving to death for lack of food, the health department says we are killing ourselves by eating too much, and the wrong kinds of foods! We certainly didn’t have that problem when I was a boy! We had enough food and I never faced starvation, nor went to bed hungry, but we didn’t have all the things we have today, and we couldn’t go to the refrigerator for snacks all during the day. Eating between meals was a no-no at our house! I can recall a time I would sneak into the kitchen for a cold biscuit and I would hear Mama call from another room, “Bill, you better get out of the kitchen and leave those biscuits until supper!” And I would do it, too!
When I read about all the poverty in our nation, and about little children going to bed hungry, I have to question why? There are so many sources one can turn to for help. I have to admit that what I see and the things I hear just do not seem to match! Maybe Americans just look rich but are really poor. Looks can sometimes be deceiving.
One preacher said that if anyone had a problem as to what poverty in America looks like they should visit his church and he would show them. He said if they would count the money in the offering plate, they would know that poverty really exists in America. He said that the “Good Book” says that folk should give a tenth of their income to the church, and if what was in the offering plate represents a tenth of his congregation’s income, they really are living in poverty! What he can’t understand is how they afford all those fancy cars sitting in the church’s parking lot! He said that the only old car out there belonged to him. He said that after one Sunday morning’s sermon he was leaving the church and a little boy followed him outside and offered him a quarter. He thanked the little boy, and said, “Keep your quarter, son, I don’t need it!”
The little boy replied, “Yes, you do, my Daddy says you are the poorest preacher we have ever had?”
Well, that’s another story and perhaps a different kind of poverty! I’ll save it for another time.
Mr. Shepard is a native of Darlington, S.C., and a current resident of Piedmont, S.C. Signed copies of Mr. Shepard’s books “Mill Town Boy” and “Bruised” are available for purchase at the News and Press office. He has been sharing his tales of growing up in Darlington for decades, and we are delighted to share them each week.