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Poor And Foolish

Fascinating story on All Things Considered yesterday: a first-person account of poverty by a teenager in New York City. [1] The teenager, Jairo Gomez, lives in a one-bedroom apartment with eight family members. His family is $15,000 below the poverty line. Excerpt:

That kind of scares me. I’ve seen articles posted on Facebook about how unlikely it is to get out of poverty, how poor people usually stay poor. If I don’t get an education, I’ll be stuck like my parents.

But I haven’t always been able to make school my priority. When I was younger, I felt like a robot. All I did was go home and help baby-sit and clean. I never had that freedom before — to be able to hang out and skate with my friends. So in ninth grade, I started cutting every day.

Then, when I was in the 10th grade, for the second time my mom started asking me if I could stay home from school to watch the kids. If I said no, most of the money she would make would go to a baby sitter.

I failed every class that year. That made me finally realize that if I ever wanted to graduate, I needed to be in school.

Notice the language: “I haven’t always been able to make school my priority.” Not, “I haven’t always made school my priority.” A slight difference, but a meaningful one. The more the story goes on, the more you see that the family is stuck in a fatalistic mindset. Things just happen to them. Like the mom getting pregnant four times after her husband, Jairo’s father, left. Excerpt:

I asked my mom why she had so many of us.

“With each pregnancy, I accepted it and let it happen,” she says. “And I felt happy, but I never thought, ‘This son I’m gonna have, I’m gonna educate and motivate to become a doctor, or this daughter I’m going to have I’m gonna motivate to become a lawyer.’

“The job of the mother is to feed and clothe them, to give them love, when maybe I didn’t have time to give them each enough love,” she adds.

It gets me mad that my mom works so hard. And there are people out there who are just born into it. They make money like nothing. They don’t have to clean houses, wake up early, drain themselves.

This brought to mind what a friend of mine who lives in an inner-city neighborhood and does missionary work among the poor told me: that the greatest obstacle the kids he works with deal with are in their own minds. They believe that people who are better off than they are came by it dishonestly, or simply by fate. It doesn’t often occur to them that the choices they make — to drop out of school, to have multiple children out of wedlock — have anything to do with their chronic poverty.

You don’t see this in the written version of the story, but at about the six-minute mark, after the quote above, Jairo says, “I needed to make money for myself, so I took a week-long carpentry job. I knew I’d be making less than minimum wage, and I’d be missing school, but I was failing the second trimester anyway.” Yes, he failed. Jairo later goes to his English teacher, who tells him that he could have pulled out the semester if he had stayed in school. But he didn’t. So there he is.

Again, the apparent belief that things just happen to people seems to be a key factor in this family’s miserable situation. Cause-and-effect doesn’t appear to occur to them. How do you break out of that, if you’re Jairo or his sisters? Gods of the copybook headings [2], and all that…

 

164 Comments (Open | Close)

164 Comments To "Poor And Foolish"

#1 Comment By Erin Manning On November 20, 2014 @ 7:49 pm

Rod, you know I don’t think this woman should be having sex out of wedlock if that’s what’s going on here. And (under the usual conditions for mortal sin) a happily married Catholic couple using artificial birth control can be headed toward Hell just as easily as this woman can be–lust is lust, after all.

Here’s the thing, though: this woman’s choices are in the past, and the children are the reality. How do we help them? Is it necessary to teach Jairo to despise his mother and reject his siblings, especially his half-siblings, in order to help him move beyond “dangerous sentiment” and toward the kind of moral agency that will somehow lift him out of poverty? Because I would rather be bringing Angel Tree gifts to Jairo and all his siblings, and maybe help his mom figure out child care issues so Jairo can get his GED, instead of beginning from the standpoint that he needs to reject his mother’s worldview (and so few people can separate that from rejecting the person as well) and abandon his family in order to prove that he’s worthy of being helped.

Maybe I’ve read too much Chesterton. I don’t care if society helps the undeserving poor. Nobody really deserves poverty anyway.

#2 Comment By ginger On November 20, 2014 @ 9:13 pm

[NFR: Jairo does mention his “stepfather” as living in the house with them, but he doesn’t speak of him as a provider, or as having any role at all in caring for the children. I don’t know, of course, but I expect the “stepfather” is a boyfriend who lives with the family, but is otherwise ancillary to their life. — RD]

And Dominic “So, in the case in question, this woman (objectively speaking at least) is not living this ideal at all. She had more kids without even a guy around so shes fornicating. Fornication is not covered under the marital debt/cure for concupiscence. As far as the Church is concerned, if she isn’t married she shouldn’t be having sex and thus shouldn’t have had kids outside of wedlock.”

Maybe, but maybe not. I’m not going to go assuming she is “fornicating” on that alone. I don’t know too many kids who call their mother’s boyfriends “stepfather,” quite frankly, so I tend to think the term likely indicates this guy is more than just a casual boyfriend shacking up on the living room floor.

She could very well be legally married (or maybe even validly married in the eyes of the Church, for all we know—although I find it highly unlikely that somebody so poor would have the wherewithal to have both sought and received an annulment) to this “stepfather.”

Just going back to our own ancestors, my husband’s grandparents were dirt poor—I do mean dirt poor–and had 12 children they really couldn’t feed (ended up having to “farm” some of them out to other family members, most of who also had very large numbers of children and barely had a pot to pee in themselves). But they were devout Catholics and believed in the Church’s teachings and yes, that included old-fashioned notions like marriage debt. They are why my husband is here, so I have a hard time looking upon them too harshly, although I am certainly glad we live in a different time. It’s not a life I want for my own children, that’s for sure.

They weren’t fornicating. They were following the Church’s teachings the best way they knew how and trusting that God would provide. And that He did, in the sense all the children survived and nobody actually starved or died of disease.

Today these hardworking, honest,simple people would receive nothing but social condemnation (we can thank the advent of widely available contraception for that, I suppose), apparently even from devout Catholics. Times have changed, and I personally am very glad they have, but this idea of only having children when you can afford to provide them a certain lifestyle is not anything the Church has ever taught, as far as I can tell. You had the children God sent you, for better or for worse. Sometimes 10, 12, or even 15 of them. And you were supposed to consider them a blessing, not a burden or something to feel guilty about having let happen, no matter how poor you were.

Boy are those days ever gone.

#3 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On November 20, 2014 @ 10:01 pm

If only we could combine the economic morals of liberal-minded Christians with the sexual morals of conservative-minded Christians, fine things could be achieved.

I was going to say I could go for that, but you said “liberal-minded.” Liberals are just as complicit in capitalism as conservatives. But then, that’s why you said you would vote for labor, n’est-ce pas?

#4 Comment By dominic1955 On November 21, 2014 @ 12:26 am

Erin,

“Dominic, somebody further up the thread says Jairo talked about a stepfather. So it’s possible that this woman had four children each with two husbands, and unless you know for sure whether or not either of her marriages was valid or which one was I think we ought to let her discuss her putative sins with her confessor.”

Thank you for pointing that out. I should have said I was speaking in general as I have no real idea of this person’s actual status. I’m using the example as a springboard, to clear up further confusion.

“If we’re getting to the point where we think that the only people who ought to marry and have children at all are those with good jobs and 401Ks and a college savings account for each potential child, we’re not speaking with the Church–not at all.”

Did I say any of that? Nope.

#5 Comment By dominic1955 On November 21, 2014 @ 12:46 am

Ginger,

“Maybe, but maybe not.”

See my response to Erin.

“Just going back to our own ancestors, my husband’s grandparents were dirt poor—I do mean dirt poor–and had 12 children they really couldn’t feed (ended up having to “farm” some of them out to other family members, most of who also had very large numbers of children and barely had a pot to pee in themselves). But they were devout Catholics and believed in the Church’s teachings and yes, that included old-fashioned notions like marriage debt. They are why my husband is here, so I have a hard time looking upon them too harshly, although I am certainly glad we live in a different time.”

Where I grew up, 12 would have been quite exceptional and this was well before the time of any sort of easily available contraception. A lot of people married later, the men typically making something of themselves before they could.

“They weren’t fornicating. They were following the Church’s teachings the best way they knew how and trusting that God would provide. And that He did, in the sense all the children survived and nobody actually starved or died of disease.”

Well and good.

“Today these hardworking, honest,simple people would receive nothing but social condemnation (we can thank the advent of widely available contraception for that, I suppose), apparently even from devout Catholics.”

Get married and stay married. If you aren’t in a position to support kids, don’t have sex. Stay in the Church. If its really a matter of the bastard walking out on you, we’d help. Even if it weren’t we’d help.

“Times have changed, and I personally am very glad they have, but this idea of only having children when you can afford to provide them a certain lifestyle is not anything the Church has ever taught, as far as I can tell.”

No one, at least not I, is arguing one has to provide a certain lifestyle. I would think if you cannot hardly feed them and set them up for failure in life, you are doing them all a diservice. That doesn’t entail confortable middle class lifestyle. You don’t look hard enough, cf. Casti conubii paragraph 53. The Church has never taught you need to breed like rabbits either.

“You had the children God sent you, for better or for worse. Sometimes 10, 12, or even 15 of them. And you were supposed to consider them a blessing, not a burden or something to feel guilty about having let happen, no matter how poor you were.”

Maybe we just got preferential treatment down at Hotel d’Polak with the priest not making them think they need to all just exist to reproduce. I don’t recall seeing anyone with more that 10 kids in the old (1800s to 1960s) books from where I grew up, and rarely that many. 5, 6, 7, 8, sure, and this was well before any sort of contraception was at all fashionable, tolerable, or easy to get. I think they must have just thought that since sex gets you kids and you already are having to tighten the other kids belts a bit, maybe you should just stop having sex. Which is backed up by Casti conubii.

#6 Comment By M_Young On November 21, 2014 @ 3:22 am

@Catherine

” I just got a call from our former nanny, who was offered a job today that would pay her $10 an hour to care for two children whose parents live in a luxury high rise. How far do you think $10 an hour goes in NYC?”

Notice the ‘former’ part. That’s largely how it works … maybe, just maybe, CatherineNY paid all the SSI etc, paid a good wage to her ‘help’ etc…but at the end of the day the employee was turned out (Catherine’s kids hit school age or something) and the former employee become all of our responsibility.

Now, maybe I committed an error in personalizing the situation to CatherineNY. But she is of the class that benefits from the general system.

#7 Comment By JonF On November 21, 2014 @ 6:35 am

Re: Jairo does mention his “stepfather” as living in the house with them, but he doesn’t speak of him as a provider, or as having any role at all in caring for the children. I don’t know

Since we don’t know, we shouldn’t make any assumptions.

#8 Comment By JonF On November 21, 2014 @ 6:43 am

With regard to “just in time” labor I can’t figure why it’s even necessary. With today’s software it ought be possible to predict with considerable accuracy how busy things will be. If you’re wrong and have too many people send some home early. If it gets busier than expected either deal with it, or call around and see if someone can make it in– someone is bound to want extra money in their paycheck. The service industry was always like that, though without good software. “Just in time” seems gratuitously abusive without even serving any justified business need that couldn’t be met as noted above. One serious suggestion I’ve seen for getting rid of it would be to require employers to pay people minimum wage for any time they must block off for call-in possibility (in regards to low wage, part-time work)

#9 Comment By Glaivester On November 21, 2014 @ 9:53 am

Do you really believe that most people over the course of the centuries should not have been having sex and the resulting babies? Most were dirt poor and continued having sex and children even though they couldn’t provide anything near a comfortable life for the children they already had.

If you want to advocate a return to a medieval standard of living, please let me know.

Or is it just because we have access to contraceptives nowadays that we have the responsibility not to have children we can’t “afford” (which can be a very relative term, after all) or that may be burdens to our already existing children?

I mean, I’m kind of with you, but at the same time, I don’t see how we can complain about the coming demographic winter while at the same time denouncing people who keep having children under less-than-ideal circumstances.

Because the types of people having children are not the kind who will be solving our “demographic winter” problem. They are largely low-skilled and/or on various forms of assistance, and will, rather than provide for seniors’ social security in the future, be drawing money out of those funds themselves.

I would like to solve our demographic winter in a way that does not replace it with Idiocracy.

Children born to the poor and children born to families in which they will be burdens to the older children in the family have been the norm for centuries, if not millenia. Personally, I am glad we have options not to have more children than we can “afford,” but the flip side of that carries a price, too.

Again, if you would like to live in the conditions in which most humans have lived until the last 200-300 years or so, please let me know.

#10 Comment By heartright On November 21, 2014 @ 3:32 pm

Siarlys Jenkins says:
November 20, 2014 at 10:01 pm

If only we could combine the economic morals of liberal-minded Christians with the sexual morals of conservative-minded Christians, fine things could be achieved.

I was going to say I could go for that, but you said “liberal-minded.” Liberals are just as complicit in capitalism as conservatives. But then, that’s why you said you would vote for labor, n’est-ce pas?
Indeed.
As with my vote as with the existing categories of American Christians – somehow, we must work with what is available, rather than we would dream to have.

#11 Comment By CatherineNY On November 21, 2014 @ 4:32 pm

@M_Young, if you insist on making snide personal attacks on me, you might take the time to read what I have written. You write: ‘@Catherine ” I just got a call from our former nanny, who was offered a job today that would pay her $10 an hour to care for two children whose parents live in a luxury high rise. How far do you think $10 an hour goes in NYC?” Notice the ‘former’ part. That’s largely how it works … maybe, just maybe, CatherineNY paid all the SSI etc, paid a good wage to her ‘help’ etc…but at the end of the day the employee was turned out (Catherine’s kids hit school age or something) and the former employee become all of our responsibility.”‘ We never “turned her out.” We ensured she had a job with us until she found another full-time job. Now that she is without work again, we are paying her rent and employing her to do a variety of things for us that add up to a full-time job until she gets another full-time nanny job. We continue to pay Catholic school tuition for two of her children, and will do so as long as she wants to keep them in the school. We love her and them, and she is my friend. She has never been on welfare, by the way. Right now, I am actively helping her find a job — registering her on various nanny job sites, talking to potential employers. We are also spending time hanging out and talking, and have some good laughs together. I have tried to treat all the employees we have had in our home this way. One of my grandmothers was a maid, and another was a laundress, so I’m very close generationally to being in the same position as the nannies and cleaning ladies I know.

#12 Comment By ginger On November 21, 2014 @ 9:24 pm

Glaivester “Again, if you would like to live in the conditions in which most humans have lived until the last 200-300 years or so, please let me know.”

What part of “Personally, I am glad we have options not to have more children than we can “afford,” but the flip side of that carries a price, too.” did you not understand?

#13 Comment By ginger On November 21, 2014 @ 10:36 pm

“I don’t recall seeing anyone with more that 10 kids in the old (1800s to 1960s) books from where I grew up, and rarely that many. 5, 6, 7, 8, sure, and this was well before any sort of contraception was at all fashionable, tolerable, or easy to get. I think they must have just thought that since sex gets you kids and you already are having to tighten the other kids belts a bit, maybe you should just stop having sex. Which is backed up by Casti conubii.”

I guess your ancestors were not as fertile as mine and my husband’s—I can think of 10, 12, and 12 right away. I have a sister-in-law who hails from a family of 18. Those were all families born pre-Pill. In modern times, I have a brother-in-law with 10, a very good friend due with her 9th any day, and I graduated from college with several people who now have between 10 and 14 children. I have a step-cousin who has 16. They married early and were either unsuccessful with NFP or didn’t use any form of birth control at all. All except the step-cousin are Catholics. All had their children within marriage with the same spouse.

As for the couples of yore who had a more moderate 6 or 7, what makes you think they stopped having sex of some sort? Way back in the late 1800s, when the Vatican first started being asked questions about the legitmacy of the early rhythm method (confining sex only to days thought to be infertile), the response from the Vatican (in the Sacred Penitentiary) was

“Married couples who use their marriage right in the aforesaid manner are not to be disturbed, and the confessor may suggest the opinion in question, cautiously, however, to those married people whom he has tried in vain by other means to dissuade from the detestable crime of onanism.”

Apparently there was enough non-procreative fooling around by Catholics in order to avoid getting pregnant that the Church saw it fit (though cautiously, and only if he has already tried to dissuade them through other means) to recommend offering the rhythm method as a means to dissuade them from their onanism.

And this for people devout enough to actually confess it as a sin. I would imagine there were quite a few who didn’t. Long before the pill, married people figured out alternate ways of being intimate that would not risk a pregnancy. No doubt it helped quite a few people have more moderately sized families rather than the very large families so many orthodox Catholics in my circle of fellow college grads, family, and friends are having.

As for Castii Conubi, I see emphasis placed on the importance of a woman obeying her husband, as well as mention of the marriage debt(25. By this same love it is necessary that all the other rights and duties of the marriage state be regulated as the words of the Apostle: “Let the husband render the debt to the wife, and the wife also in like manner to the husband,”[28] express not only a law of justice but of charity.)

And I see both private parties (preference) and the state (if private parties aren’t upt to the task) being admonished to help provide for the families of the poor if they cannot support themselves. But where does it say that these poor people have a moral obligation to stop reproducing? If they can’t feed their children, we the people and the state have a responsibility to feed them and support them in their marriages and their procreation.

As far as I can tell, periodic abstinence was permissible, but not a requirement for these poor, large families the Pope says we must help support. I see nothing to the effect that they should be shamed or condemned for having large families, despite their poverty. The solution offered seems to be providing for these families so that they can properly raise their (sometimes many) children rather than condemning them for being irresponsible for doing so.

#14 Comment By CatherineNY On November 22, 2014 @ 8:47 am

@Ginger, you ask: “As for the couples of yore who had a more moderate 6 or 7, what makes you think they stopped having sex of some sort?” Well, in the case of my grandmother, as I mentioned earlier in the thread, I heard directly from my mother that her father was sent to sleep in a different bedroom after the fifth child was born. This was purely for economic reasons. I was born in the early 50s, and attended Catholic school all the way through. I remember a few families in double digits, but they stood out among the much smaller families that were typical of all my schools. I would not wish life in most of those double digit families on anyone. Perhaps I just happened to meet some who were, as we would say today, particularly dysfunctional. I honestly do not understand the case for people having huge numbers of children they cannot either afford or care for in other ways, and I don’t mean that I think every child is due a private room and tennis lessons. I have written before about my best friend, from a family of seven, whose parents worked shifts as a nurse and factory worker, and who grew all their own fruits and vegetables. They were a wonderful family, and I spent many happy hours in their home, which was very far from luxurious. But I was also raised with stories of family member and friends from an older generation who worked, saved, and (where possible) got an education before getting married. This was common among responsible Catholics in earlier generations. We’re not supposed to be a fertility cult, as others have commented on this blog. I try to be responsive to every opportunity to help people who are struggling to support their children, but I don’t admire people — however devout — who marry young and start having children in the expectation that “the Church” will provide them with the requisite economic support.