It was during my first semester at New York University that I discovered that I had grown up poor. It was in a graduate course in sociology and the professor was describing the “lower class.” These were described as people, according to the professor, mostly black, who had no bank account, lived in a shanty and wore hand-me-down clothes.
I said to myself, “Lord have mercy, that man is describing our family and all the families in Zuber.” Zuber is not quite a village; it is a small very rural community about six miles north of Ocala. Then the professor went on to say that these people are lazy, filthy, promiscuous and otherwise sinful. That’s when I realized that he was not talking about us at all. There must be another type of lower class people.
It was during the Great Depression and all the people I knew when growing up in Zuber worked hard all their lives. Yet, they lived poor and died poor. However, they supported a church and everybody attended, every Sunday and all day. I cannot remember any house that was not usually clean and tidy.
Except for having to struggle to make a living, nothing else in the sociological definition of poverty remotely related to the people I grew up with in Zuber. In fact, those who were maids in non-poor homes were very critical of their employers because many of them lacked a concern for hygiene, were lazy and could be described as drunkards. With many of these upper-class folk, there was undisguised promiscuity, causing the maids to say, “They ain’t got no pride”! Clearly, the professor had mixed up the definitions.
Our neighbors and we lived in sub-standard houses but, as I said before, they were kept clean. We had no lawns but dirt yards that we took pride in raking and making sure there was no debris. To be caught with a dirty house and a littered yard would make you the subject of extreme ridicule. No one would criticize you to your face but gossip would fly and by sundown it would arrive within your earshot.
If the people who had the responsibility of enforcing the child labor laws had visited Zuber, not a single parent would have escaped jail time. In Zuber, if you were big enough to walk, you were big enough to work. In fact, I remember going into the produce fields when I was 6 years old. We all did – and would have thrown a tantrum if we were prevented from doing so. Working in the fields was just an extension of playing, with the bonus that we could make a little money which we were permitted to keep. The result is that I cannot remember a single time when I did not have my own money, even if it was not much.
Without really knowing why, we worked as hard in school as we worked in the fields. Every child was expected to “finish school” and if you got as much as a single “A” any time in any class, you were expected to go to college. An “A” meant that you had the ability; the determination came from the great expectation of the community and the gossip that you must have some hidden retardation if you didn’t go. Also, everyone encouraged you and the entire community would do what little that it could to help you go.
Years later, I was in the position to teach sociology myself. I needn’t tell you that I taught a different definition. I taught that about 90 percent of people born in poverty in America will rise above it and that poverty is not caused by laziness but by a lack of meaningful opportunity; that, with hard work, determination, support and thrift, “Yes, we can.”
Gilbert L. Raiford is semi-retired after a career in teaching and working for the U.S. Department of State. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org