I was talking to a friend recently about living on the bottom rung of the income scale. She's in her 70s and is happy she's still physically able to work, because Social Security won't cover their needs. Her job? Well, she's got two. In the summer, she cleans a huge lake home, then goes back to the little house she shares with her husband, who has cancer. During the school year, she works in a school cafeteria.
Her employer, perhaps, has no idea how impoverished her house cleaner is. My friend isn't the kind of person to complain. But we agreed that wealthy people probably have no idea about how the poor live.
No idea that this wonderful woman who brightens so many lives endured the loss of her furnace for several weeks this winter. You do remember this past winter? The brutal thermometer readings, Minnesotans huddling under quilts, icicles dripping from their noses. Well, my friend's furnace failed just before that brutal cold snap, and they had to get by with space heaters.
My friend is not alone. In Douglas County, 8.4 percent of people live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census. Mostly we are too ashamed to tell our stories because our society tends to blame those who are poor. I say "we," because I've been among their ranks. There were Sundays I chose not to drive to church because gas was too expensive, and weeks when I had to forego the $2.50 Sunday paper. Those were the years when my son was young and I couldn't find a job that paid enough to justify childcare.
It wasn't that I didn't work; I did. I took care of our son. We grew a lot of our own food and sold the extra at a farmer's market. I baked bread. We even grew the wheat and cleaned and ground it ourselves, thanks to my husband's aunt, who let us use her flour grinder on sort of a permanent loan. My husband worked too, farming and repairing tractors. But the corn crop failed one year, and we had high equipment payments.
There is a gritty satisfaction you can get from poverty, from relying on yourself, from denying yourself, from enduring hardships. When our well went out, we hauled water from town or our neighbor's well for 10 days. It was an adventure; I felt like Ma Ingalls. Fortunately, it only lasted 10 days. And fortunately, when our son was old enough for school, I was able to find a job.
But poor people are lazy, right? They do drugs. They're alcoholics. They don't want to work. They spend too much money. That's what we're told about the poor, and while I'm sure that is sometimes true, the reality for most is simply that wages are too low and costs too high.
Here's to hoping that wages continue to rise, that workers are able to climb into the middle class, and that people like my friend can have furnaces that work all winter long.
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"It's Our Turn" is a weekly column that rotates among members of the Echo Press editorial staff.