Becoming Poor…Is It A Choice?
We welcome back Esther Y. Guzman, director of the West Ward Neighborhood Partnership. Thanks for sharing again!
In 1992 I arrived in Bethlehem from Puerto Rico with two boys and a suitcase full of dreams. We were considered upper-middle class on the Island and came to the United States due to my husband’s illness, which was followed by his death.
All of a sudden I found myself with a low-paying job, (at least I was hired one week after I arrived), living in a pretty messed up apartment, without a car and with all kinds of personal problems due to my husband’s style of living; I had become a victim of domestic violence and afraid to move out and even afraid to share all this with my relatives in Puerto Rico. Plus, I did not want to return to Puerto Rico as a “failure,” especially when all my relatives asked me not to leave but I wanted my two boys to learn English and benefit from a good education, so I made the decision to stay and make lemonade of all the lemons. That was in 1992. Now, almost 20 years later, I reflect back and have reached the following conclusions:
First, we become poor not by choice but by circumstances. Second, there are always angels along your path. My angel was, at the time, Officer Mark DiLuzio (now Lieutenant) from the Bethlehem Police Department, who walked me through the process of applying for a civil service job, showed me how to go to Easton to apply for food stamps was really embarrassing to seek assistance I never dreamed I would need, its also showed me that there is no such a word as “stranger”; that we are all in this human race to help each other, regardless of race, language, religion, etc.
So, I became a statistic: welfare recipient, no health insurance, underemployed working as a clerk typist even though I had graduated from college, and, in the income bracket that designated me as a “poor” person. Plus, I had to deal with a slum landlord, living in an apartment that was falling apart and thinking “why did I leave Puerto Rico?”
At the time I had this mental image that poor people were homeless or lived in slums, and that they were not motivated to get out of poverty. What a surprise and a humbling experience when I found myself to be among the poor. So I hate labels, whether “poor”, “at risk”, or whatever, because we don’t know the personal circumstances of each of our fellow human beings. For me, the change was overnight: one day you are upper-middle class and the next day the floor disappears from under your feet. If each one of us stops for a minute to think that life is like the sea, with tides that come and go. One day you are feeling secure, the next you are feeling desperate. If we walk in somebody else’s shoes we would not be so fast at jumping to conclusions of why people are poor or struggling.
Time has a way to cure all. Thanks to Mark and other angels that I met I was able to secure a stable job and move off the welfare ranks (ironically, I became a caseworker with the Department of Public Welfare) moved to a better apartment. The boys were learning English and thriving in school (now both Temple University graduates). I started to become involved in the community, something I had always done in the past but for which I had no time while trying to “make it,” having been too embarrassed to disclose what was happening in my life and living from crisis to crisis with a broken heart and empty pockets.
For those who are struggling I have this humble advise: keep your sense of humor; have faith that things will get better: don’t shut your heart to the angels around you but grab them with all your strength until you are able to stand up by yourself; make sure that education is at the top priority for your kids; and make sure that, after you “make it,” you help others who are struggling to get up.
Poverty is not a choice, it’s not about being lazy, it’s not about not caring; it’s about circumstances that life presents we just have to get up, cry if we have to and move on and work hard to turn things around trusting that things will get better and that we are not alone; there are people and organizations willing to help.
Community Action is one of those organizations. Give us a call if you need help, donate so that we may help others, volunteer but GET INVOLVED you never know when it might happen to you.