Friday, November 5, 2010

Am I poor? AHAs from the concrete jungles of NY pt 2

Photo credit: NY Times
Last week I shared a few AHAs from the perspective of a young man (me) living below the poverty line on the streets of NY. Through conversations with Stereo, Sam, a number of social workers/volunteers/etc., there were a few additional lessons that I didn't share – partly because I didn't have space but also because I needed to process these more. So, I wanted to take a few quick minutes to get these out and see if there are any thoughts/comments.
Being poor is often about choices
When I met Stereo, he was sitting outside of the St. Apostles soup kitchen on 9th Ave and 28th St. It was at 12:40pm and I had just missed the clam chowder lunch, but Stereo was capping it off with a bag of $4 Tahiti cookies from Pepperidge Farm. He would later tell me that these are his favorite cookies, and that he prefers to have them with milk (Don’t give me no soda. Soda’s what junkies drink with cookies). He turned down the pair of Dockers and the American Eagle shirt that his friend Sam had offered to me, as he didn’t like the fashion and already had a similar shirt. And he refuses to apply for welfare, because he believes the jobs they offer are dehumanizing.

Throughout the day, I began to realize that it’s because of these decisions that Stereo doesn’t consider himself poor. Acumen Fund’s CEO has often said that poverty is about choice. And that choice is dignity. Stereo has found a way to eat the cookies he wants, with the milk he wants. He’s developed his own fashion style. He has a preference for the women he dates (which is another discussion!), and he likes to host parties after he’s saved up enough money from selling cigarettes, singing in Washington Square Park, and telling jokes on the 1 line. So even though his monthly income is below the US poverty line, Stereo has clearly said that he doesn’t consider himself poor, and my guess is that the choices he’s able to make have a lot to do with this declaration.  

It’s expensive to live below the poverty line
If being poor is about the absence of choices that Stereo or Sam or I can make, then the system is tragically relentless at promoting poverty. As I trudged from Western Union, to Bank of America, to AT&T – in hopes of utilizing various services available to someone with limited income – I realized how many additional fees I would be paying, simply because I didn’t have a minimum amount in my personal checking… er, piggy bank.
Let’s not even discuss the prices that I would have had to pay at American Dental, a disturbingly life-draining doctor’s office lined with shining posters of people that starkly contrasted with the 11 black patients sitting anxiously inside. Even “affordable” housing (read: the projects) would cost me up to $1,000 a month, and I would have to wait 6 to 18 months in order to be placed.

Somehow, I don’t think this is the idea CK Prahalad was promoting when he coined the term fortune at the bottom of the pyramid.

Unanswered questions
At the end of the day, I sat back in the office with the rest of the Fellows, energized by the community and dignity I found in Stereo and Sam, but also discouraged by the system. 43 million people in the “most developed country in the world” is unfathomable, and yet the system seems to operate in a way that is set at persevering that figure. And unfortunately, the pinballing questions in my head have only increased: What can we do to help? How do we begin to transform the system? Is this purely I policy intervention, or are there practical actions that we can be taking?


  1. Hey Benje, keep the posts coming!

  2. This was a great read, and very informative. It's interesting to see a different perspective on poverty.