I Had an American Dream


Poverty is blind, but it will claim anyone who wanders close. Once it claims you, it holds you like quicksand – struggle is futile.

I had a dream, a dream that I lived in poverty, in squalor, and it clung to me like the dirt under my fingernails and the scabs of untreated wounds. Every day I awakened only to find that the dream wasn’t a dream at all, it was reality, a reality that I could not escape even when my eyes were closed. There is hope in my dream, but none in my reality.

I didn’t start out to be poor. My life was productive, it had purpose; I loved and was loved in return. I never had much, but at times there was enough to help others. I had a home, a car, a mortgage, a wife and children. I voted in elections, worked hard, raised a family, paid my bills and planned for a sustainable life. They called those like me, the middle class. It was the American Dream; it was my dream, and it ended.

No one picks poverty as a way of life, but once it finds you, poverty is grudging, unyielding, and escape without help is all but impossible. No longer welcomed by the American Dream, you sleep in public toilets, alleys and places where you are permitted to gather with others who share your plight. Your meager possessions are tattered and soiled. Poverty is a shared existence unlike the one hoarded by the rich.

Many who spend their lives here never had a taste of prosperity. Those who did are left with bittersweet memories. There are generations that have been in and out of poverty, never escaping its despair. You’ll find children here, babies, innocents who will never know the warmth of humanity, only its disdain. These are truly children of the damned, victims who grow up in a semi-feral life of ignorance and scarcity.

The American Dream isn’t dead, it is being hoarded. With each generation more and more are condemned to poverty and homelessness; they need help, not isolation. They are imprisoned just as assuredly as criminals locked up and kept apart from society. They are fed and clothed while they serve their sentence.

The homeless and the poor are treated worse than criminals. We pay corporations a profit to house and care for those convicted of crimes while the alleys and streets, the bridges and abandoned buildings shelter the poor and homeless. How can this be acceptable? Do people whose crime is being poor or who have been victimized by others deserve less consideration than an inmate? On the rare occasion when the rich are convicted of a crime, they are sent to camp where their wealth continues to buy them privilege.

It hurts being poor, the pain is real, tangible. A good day is sunny when everything you possess isn’t wet and clinging to you like your circumstances. Here a good day is a gift, not a birthright. The wealthy ride elevators to their spacious, climate controlled environment while the poor huddle beneath them with their cherished, filthy blanket around a steel drum burning scrap wood to survive the cold. They are the fortunate ones. Others huddle under bridges in the paper lodgings hoping that there’s enough warmth to get them through the night, one hour at a time.

That’s how it is in poverty, it’s abject. When it is cold, you are frozen out. When it is hot, whatever touches your sweat-covered skin is baked on in layers.

There is no such thing as petty theft among the impoverished. Every possession serves a purpose. A blanket or a salvaged dumpster meal become the measure of one’s wealth. I clung to my father’s watch. He wore it proudly on his vest. I shared that pride; it is one of the few things left that comforted me. I pawned it before it was stolen for a few hot meals and a bed.

If there is a heaven, will the rich own it too, will the poor still be poor? If the answer is yes, I don’t think I want to go there. If the answer is no, then why is it so important for some to have everything now?

It’s immoral and criminal to hoard wealth, or at least it should be. The poor envy wealth, they don’t begrudge it. The wealthy don’t have to give up much to stop the poverty cycle for the many. Go out on the street, meet the homeless. Walk the impoverished neighborhoods and see what they come home to. See for yourself what it looks like, what it smells like to live in poverty. If you can do that and walk away, you have helped to create the problem.

Income inequality has become conspicuous. We’ve all heard the statistics – it isn’t opinion, it is reality. Years ago I visited Bombay, India. There you could smell caste poverty on the streets, but not in the numerous world class restaurants. It had to be laundered from your clothing and polished from your shoes in the hermetically sealed hotel. I fear for the future of our great nation. We seem to be oblivious to the signs and stuck in denial that it could happen to us. Look around, with the decline of the middle and working class, the schism has grown deeper. We build walls to keep the wealth and the wealthy safe.

The wealthy use the law to build the walls, and we stand all too ready to defend them.