During that weekend, Erin had been hinting that she knew someone else who could use some help: A single mom who had gotten a much-deserved break in life and was moving from graffiti-laced tenements to a much nicer home. We were exhausted from all the work, but many of us decided to help out. How much stuff could a poor woman like that have? We figured we'd throw a few items onto the truck and quickly wrap it up.
I had rented a 26' Penske truck for the weekend--the largest moving vehicle I could have gotten without a CDL license. I mention this because it took us two full loads with this vehicle to transport all the items of this impoverished woman.
Now, I want to be very careful here before we are tempted to jump to any conclusions about this woman's poverty. None of these items were worth much--we're talking about smoke-soaked, urine-stained mattresses and furniture that practically fell apart when you touched it. Everything was broken, and you would be lucky to get a nickel for any of it.
I also don't want to jump to any conclusions about how she acquired all this stuff. Maybe it was all donations or picked up by the side of the road. It could have been left by previous tenants in the apartments she has lived in It is possible she didn't spend a cent for any of it in the first place.
But I would be lying if I said that the thought never crossed my mind that a part of this woman's poverty could involve decisions she was making about these items. If she were actually spending money for this stuff, maybe she could be doing it differently. The stuff she had was barely even usable, by middle-class standards. If she were spending money on it, even if it were the most low-cost church rummage sale, what she was getting was hardly doing the job. Maybe instead of buying several extremely low-cost beds, for example, she could instead have bought one or two nicer ones.
Again, I don't want to create an impression that poor people are all living with mountains of valuable possessions and have loads of resources they just need to shift from one place to another and then all their problems are solved. I'd invite anyone to take a tour with me of some of these homes before you think that poor people are running away with highway robbery of government support.
But it is also no secret to say that many of us--including the very poor--just don't have good resource management skills. We don't spend our money wisely or accumulate items in the most forward-thinking way. In poverty, people deal with violence, fear, long periods of unemployment--they are immersed in a culture of substance abuse, multi-generational depression and a constant state of emergency. People don't always have the time or resources to cut coupons or do smart shopping. Still, if they were somehow able to do this, I wonder what kind of possibilities would exist.
And while many of us are living paycheck-to-paycheck without a retirement plan in sight, how many trucks would it take to haul away all of your stuff? You see, I write this post not to criticize the very poor and certainly not this woman in particular, whose life story would chill your blood. I describe this as as an example for middle-class America: Those truckloads of useless junk lining the walls of your basement or attic are your future. That stuff could be your retirement plan, heirloom furniture, trips to Jamaica, donations to the poor or literally anything else. Those boxes of stuff you bought for a dollar here and a dollar there add up to hundreds and even thousands of dollars squandered away.
This poor woman probably didn't even buy the stuff she had--what's your excuse?