© 2010 John Casimir O'Keefe

Viewing the World in Different Ways

Growing-up, we had a good house and my father worked at a good job and we had a good life.  But, something happened when I was 12 years old that changed our world; my father “fell off the wagon.”  Now, I don’t know if the issues surrounding the conditions of life affected his drinking or if his drinking affected the conditions of our lives – all I know is he was drunk most of the time and we lost everything.  Then, at about 16, my father did something that caused us to fall even further below the poverty line – he died.  By this time my older sister had moved out of the house and was living with my grandparents so my mother only had six mouths to feed.  She did everything she could to make ends meet, but with only a 9th grade education and no family support outside our little gathering, life became harder and harder.  Soon, we moved from living in a rented house to living in “the projects.”

We survived on food stamps, local food banks, VA and Social Security death benefits and whatever my mother could earn cleaning the toilets of the wealthy in our community.  The 3rd of each month was considered a “high-holy day” in our family because that was the day my mother could pay rent, buy a little food, pay the electric and the phone bill, and if we were lucky we might get some special treat.  I can still remember sitting around the house waiting for the Postal Carrier to come and deliver the mail.  Second only to the “high-holy days of the check” going to the food banks was an event in our home.  In our community there were two churches that gave out food to people in poverty in the community.  One church gave food out on the fourth Tuesday of the month and the other gave food out on the fourth Tuesday of the month, so “4th Ts” (as I came to call them) became a day of joy and great disappointment.

The way it worked was, we would go to the church and pick-up three bags of food because the churches gave out one bag of food for every two people in the house.  When we would arrive home, we would open the bags and see what we received.  Because of this, we lived on hamburger (what we could buy) and what we could get from the food banks, macaroni and cheese, canned lima beans, canned beets, canned string beans and baked beans.  On occasion we would get a can of chili, but most of what we received came from the pantry of a middle class person who decided to clean out their food pantry and give to the food bank what their family just would not eat.  Because of that, the selection was varied and weird.  I remember once standing in line waiting for the food when my little brother looked up at me and said, “I hope we don’t get a bunch of beans like last time.”  One of the volunteers overheard my brother and said, “Look son, hard working people give their extra and leftover food so you can eat, you should just be happy with what you get.”  That stuck with me, and helped form a great burning in my gut – one that said, ‘if this is what good people do to help those without, I wonder if they are really good people.’  Over time, that burning mellowed to realizing that the issue was, not that they were giving but that they had no idea who they were giving too.  You see, the wealthy and the middle class do not understand how people in poverty think – they just don’t get it.

Let me share with you a few areas of life and how people in poverty, the middle class and the wealthy see those areas:


While each class does share some commons, like taste, there are core differences in the way each view food.  For people living in poverty food is based on quantity.  The operative condition is “did you have enough?”  Food becomes seen in the reality of “feast or famine.”  In most cases food is shared.  If I have a great deal of food today I will invite others over to share that food, knowing that one day I will not have enough and others will invite me to their abundance.  For the middle class food is based on quality.  The operative condition is, “did you like it?”  Food becomes a point of honor, who serves the best tasting meals, use the freshest ingredients, the best cuts of meat.  For the wealthy food is based more on presentation.  The operative condition is “was it presented well.”  Food becomes far less nutritional and far more art.


For those living in poverty, money is something that must be used, spent.  You see, money only has value based on that it can get someone.  The idea of saving money seems silly to a person in poverty, because if it is saved it is not being used.  For the middle class, money is something that is managed.  It pays the bills, and some goes into a bank account for future use.  Saving for retirement is a very real and driving force of the middle class.  While the wealthy see money as something to be conserved and invested.   The wealthiest among us often get a great deal of things for free, just because they are wealthy.


For people living in poverty, possessions are defined as people.  It is not what they own that has value; it is who they surround themselves with, family and friends.  Friendships have great value and can even be seen as a definition of wealth.  For the middle class, “things” become the center of passions.  They focus on labels, store names and what they have to show others.  They desire to have what everyone else has.   For the wealthy, possessions center one-of-a-kind objects, things others do not have.  For them, their legacy and pedigrees define their passions, and in turn their passions define them.


You see, when people are striving to help those in poverty it is important to know where they come from, how they think, what drives them in their lives.  The middle class strive to help those in need, and that is a good thing, but they need to know where people in poverty come from.  You see, the idea is not to clean out your food pantry of things that expired or food you won’t eat to give to those in poverty.  The idea is to understand the causes of poverty and work to solve those.

Here’s a list of all the contributions for this month’s synchroblog:

Kathy Escobar – Sitting At The Rickety-Card-Table-In-The-Family-Room For Thanksgiving Dinner

George at the Love Revolution – The Hierarchy of Dirt

Arthur Stewart – The Bank

Sonnie Swenston – Seeing through the Eyes of the Marginalized

Wendy McCaig – An Empty Chair at the Debate

Ellen Haroutunian – Reading the Bible from the Margins

Christine Sine – Seeing through the Eyes of the Marginalized

Alan Knox – Naming the Marginalized

Margaret Boehlman – Just Out of Sight

Liz Dyer – Step Away from the Keyhole

Steve Hayes – Ministry to Refugees–Synchroblog on Marginalised People

Andries Louw – The South African Squatter Problem

Drew Tatusko – Invisible Margins of a White Male Body


  1. Posted 2010/11/09 at 5:53 pm | #

    John – Thanks for sharing these insights from such a personal perspective. I really appreciate the time you have taken to educate what it means to live in poverty.

    If you have time please add the links to the other participants of the synchroblog. You can find them at the end of my contribution “Step Away From The Keyhole”


  2. Posted 2010/11/10 at 4:09 pm | #

    john, wow, well said and very powerful. my family never had to go to the food bank but our reality was that my mom was a single mom working her tail off to keep the lights on & macaroni and cheese on the table & there was just never a scrap of excess. and life was just…hard. a grind. scary. tiring. as a grownup i do not know what it feels like to live in that day to day, but i do know what it felt like when i went to college & was the one on full financial aid/scholarship surrounded by bmw’s and money flowing like water. it is a really ugly, icky feeling–especially when everyone assumes that you must be able to do what they do..sorry for rambling, but reading these posts just reminds me of how far we really have to go to bridge the gaps & stop perpetuating the stripping of dignity subtly & directly. and i’m really glad there are many others who see how the “us and them” b.s. has got to go. peace to you & thanks for being part.

  3. Posted 2010/11/10 at 11:08 pm | #

    John, wonderful post. I’m reminded – even more – of what a privileged life I’ve led. You said, “You see, the wealthy and the middle class do not understand how people in poverty think – they just don’t get it.” And it’s so true. In high school and college youth groups we took trips to Skid Row L.A. and Tenderloin San Francisco, and while in many ways those trips changed my life and opened my eyes to real poverty and suffering, in other ways I’ve realized those kinds of trips further marginalize the marginalized: they re-emphasize the “otherness” of the poor, making them a sort of horror show or freak show: “scare the suburban kids straight!” The entire time, we know we get to go back to the comfort of middle class suburbia, and it’s one of the main reasons we’re FREE to be so emotionally empathetic and impacted. Our empathy itself is privilege.

  4. Posted 2010/11/11 at 6:26 am | #

    Your point about food is well-taken. It strikes me that practices like buying organic are part of the aesthetics of food choice. If I pay more for “better quality” of food, I’m making a choice that de-prioritizes quantity and it’s a sign of privilege.

    I read a book about a year ago on Victorian England that explained the general social prejudice against meals composed of bread and cheese. These foods were considered unhealthy in the popular imagination. It seems they were favored by the working classes because they were inexpensive and filling. It put me in mind of the whole low-carb craze.

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