My stomach dropped as I approached Paula’s townhouse, a small unit in city housing. I tried to hold back feelings of judgment over my friend's money habits as I waved at a neighbor drinking a Colt 45, but my efforts didn't work. Every sight, noise, and small reminded me of poverty.
I wanted to walk back to my car and drive the two miles back to my bougie life. Keeping an open mind has never been a strength of mine. My son, Kenny, ran ahead of me and grabbed a derelict tricycle laying on the porch.
“Hey,” I said to the neighbor as I approached my friend Paula's door.
I knocked, and I heard movement, but nobody answered. Then I knocked again. Louder, more insistent. She had said two in the afternoon, and it was already 2:03 p.m. After a few minutes, Paula opened the door and invited us in.
I peeled Kenny off the trike and entered her house. While my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, I saw a cockroach skitter across the floor. Roaches are a fact of life everywhere in the South, but government housing is notorious for having roach problems because landlords don’t fix leaks quickly enough.
My discomfort in visiting Paula’s house for the first time came from my personal fear of poverty.
It was the first time I had ever been in the home of someone who lived in poverty, and I had a hard time controlling my emotions.
I grew up in an affluent family, and I spent my childhood and my adulthood with people like me. Meanwhile, Paula is one of seven kids born to a single mom. She’s lived in poverty her entire life.
We met at church and bonded over our shared sense of humor and our kids’ affection for one another. Our friendship is strange, but it has blossomed over the past few years to the point where we’ve started to talk about work, fate, and finances – and on these topics, we never see eye to eye.
Almost a year ago, the city turned off Paula’s water because she hadn’t paid the bill. Paula explained that she didn’t have money to pay it. I called B.S. I knew Paula didn’t earn a ton of money, but between her job, her nephew’s rent money, and some government assistance, it seemed like she would have enough money to cover rent, utilities, and groceries, at least.
The problem was that Paula wasn’t working. She hadn’t held a steady job in months, and she was scraping by on intermittent gigs that her sister brought to her attention.
I couldn’t grasp why she didn't feel more urgency about her job situation. If I lost my job, the first thing I would do is tell everyone I know that I’m looking. I probed and prodded:
How was she paying the rent? Also, what kind of job was she looking for? Did she want help with her resume, or to use my internet to fill out applications? What about keeping the kids fed? Did she need me to buy some groceries? How much would it cost to get the utilities back on?
More or less, I asked, “What the hell are you thinking? Are you even trying to get a job?”
Over the course of our talk, a veil lifted from my eyes. My questions came from an affluent worldview – one in which money exists as a tool to grow wealth and provide security.
As a result, Paula does not think about money the way that I think about money.
Growing up, I didn't see my parents act overly concerned about survival. Inst
ead, their concerns centered around growing wealth and giving to charity. I inherited that perspective. On the other hand, Paula’s mom used her money for survival. As an adult, Paula does, too.
She doesn't look to the future to save and invest, because her basic needs consume all of her income. Even when she works full-time, she doesn’t earn a living wage. In many ways, I’m not sure that Paula even has the means to look towards the future.
The ability to look towards the future depends on having a surplus in the present.
Despite our differences in perspective, Paula and I continue to talk about money. Sometimes I end up asking for forgiveness for being judgmental, and sometimes our conversations end up being helpful. Sometimes Paula gives me advice, and shows me how to thrive on less.
We may never fully reconcile our differences, but as long as we continue communicating, we may enrich each others’ lives in significant ways. And money – or a lack of it – will have nothing to do with it.