If you are able to pay on time and in full for utilities such as gas, electricity and phone while keeping a mortgage afloat or paying the rent, then you are probably not poor. Certainly not rich, probably not even moderately affluent, but you are not poor. You might watch out for specials at the supermarket but the trolley you wheel to the checkout shows that your family will eat well and regularly over the next week or two. Shirley won’t.
Shirley is a slender woman in her fifties, grieving the recent death of her partner. He died fast after his cancer was diagnosed and he left his partner with not only grief but financial debts she has no hope of repaying. Now, as Shirley gropes her way through a maze of grief and debt she somehow is left with approximately twenty dollars a week to cover food, clothing, petrol. Every fortnight she divvies up her disability pension into so much for rent, loan repayments and utilities; and she is left with just over a dollar a day to spend at the supermarket. No wonder her energy levels are so low.
This is poverty, living on a nice street behind a low brick fence and curtains on the windows. Shirley has a wall furnace in her living room but she never turns it on, just puts on an extra layer of clothing. What she sets aside for gas is not able to cover winter heating. It’s not life threatening to watch TV wrapped in a blanket but it’s poverty Australian style. Like Lazarus, it’s right outside our suburban gates and door and fences, but we don’t really notice it.
Someone said to me recently that there is far more poverty around these days than when they were young. Maybe, but it’s far more likely that our awareness of such things grows as we age. When we are young there’s a career to chase and a living to be made. There are children to feed, clothe, educate and keep amused. Relationships need to be kept in balance and dreams of maybes and couldbes still float like colourful helium balloons in our heads. The Good Friday appeal, fun runs for various causes, bushfires, earthquakes, floods and drought all pull on our heartstrings and open up our purses. We give, usually from our surplus.
Our priorities change as we grow older. If we are aging with grace and wisdom we will more often question what we had formerly taken for granted. When I was younger I think I would have judged the Shirleys of the world pretty harshly. Now I know that even though the financial poverty that she is experiencing comes from financial incompetance, but that it is nothing compared to the anguish she feels about her family who want nothing to do with her, who blame her for “the mess”. We can intercede with Centrelink on her behalf and send her for reputable and caring financial advice, but feeling unloved, un-cared for and unwanted is the greatest poverty. How do we meet her in this?
So what am I saying? I think I am trying to say that every age has its tasks and maybe the task of the retirement years could be to lead us above and beyond volunteering Meals on Wheels and the like and into a deeper recognition of the hidden needs of the most needy in our streets and parishes and suburbs. Our response may not be organised, it may appear piecemeal, it might mean writing letters and standing in queues. It will always be somewhat unexpected and creative because it’s the Spirit of God alive and active in us. And when we die one of our regrets will not be that we did nothing for the poor.