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March 23, 2014

What Need Looks Like

Filed under: Personal, Personal Finance — Tags: , , , , , — llcall @ 8:52 pm

In the days after Neal and I finally agreed to raise our grocery budget from $145 to $200 per month, I was feeling flush with yummier things to eat. I bought a loaf of french bread to eat with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I bought a can of freeze-dried mushrooms (my friend sells these and can get reduced rates if you’re ever in the market for shelf-stable food) to rehydrate and add to some of my meals (SO much better than those water-logged canned mushrooms). Best of all, I probably went at least a week without eating any beans at all!

So I was a little surprised when I clicked on a friend’s Facebook link about a photography exhibit of “Picturing Hunger in America” and found this picture front and center:


The photos are, of course, meant to increase awareness of and empathy for the plight of low-income American families. But I couldn’t feel immediate empathy for this family, similar in size and budget, because I was too busy thinking about how Neal and I would negotiate this particular grocery list. Him crossing roast beef right off the list, while I opine about how juice is just frivolous and has too much sugar; water is so refreshing, anyway!

When I saw that picture I had to pause and contemplate whether the people I interact with, my friends and family (who sometimes joke about us starving Addison — lunch is still our Achilles’ heel), actually think that we, eating off of $50 per week, are hungry. They couldn’t possibly think that we’re going to bed with unbearably empty stomachs, right? I don’t want to downplay real pain that Americans are experiencing, but this is what hunger actually looks like, isn’t it?

This is such a complex topic. To really give context to my own reaction, I would have to talk about some of my previous work with those in poverty, my own experience on food stamps (10 or so years ago), the debate about “food deserts,” and some of the differences between being low-income vs. being in poverty (because we’re obviously low-income, but we’re nowhere near poverty-stricken). But time is my scarcest resource right now, since I started my second job almost a month ago.

In addition to teaching online, I’m now a case manager (part-time) for the family resource center in our town. I work primarily with low-income families with young children, visiting them at home, teaching parenting classes, and connecting them with whatever types of resources they need (food, shelter, insurance, government programs, legal assistance, domestic violence counseling, etc.). As much as I have felt that compassion and empathy are among my strong suits, I have to admit that I’ve already encountered situations, like the one above, in which my judgmental voice was activated far more quickly than my empathic one. It’s hard to suppress my pathological frugality when I’m daily examining others’ income and bank statements, and trying to resist asking for their projected line-item budget for the year. Someone says, We NEED this and my personal finance voice says, Are you sure that’s a need and not a want? Are you sure you’ve prioritized that need over your other wants? I think back to the first time I saw that picture above and the thoughts that ran through my head: This is not what hunger looks like; THIS is what hunger looks like. This is not what need looks like; THIS is what need looks like.

I’ve spent so long looking at incarcerated men — their needs and all the things they’ve lacked or lost — that my heart is soft for them, even without a word. I work with a different group now and I can see that my heart needs to get softer. Is it more difficult because there’s more of a resemblance there? And how to soften my heart in just the right way, so that I can still go home and leave my work at work (as if that’s ever happened!) or say no, in the kindest way possible, when that’s the only appropriate answer?

So talk to me. What helps you to activate your empathic voice, even if you have to do so in conjunction with one of judgment? I’ve found this video from Dr. Brene Brown (and her other work) very insightful . . . but what else?



  1. I completely agree with your sentiment, Lindsay! We definitely take so many things for granted in this country (thus the First world dilemmas everyone jokes about). And while I’m trying to keep my grocery budget for 6 at $125/week (factor in my kids are older and this includes diapers and cleaning supplies), I find many things I consider unnecessary or a luxury are expected necessity to others. And yet, others think the same of me- that I spend too much on certain things.

    I try to remember this to keep myself from criticizing. And then when I have to say no to certain things I can understand and sympathize with the person. Let them know that what they think necessary, really isn’t or there are other less expensive or free options to consider. It’s a fine line that is very hard to walk.

    Comment by Ishkhanoohie — March 23, 2014 @ 10:18 pm

  2. I really enjoyed this post, thank you. I just wanted to comment on the video you shared. I’ve watched it many times and I really love it. It means so much to me when people are empathetic towards me. I try my very best to be empathetic to them.

    Comment by Brianna — March 23, 2014 @ 11:44 pm

  3. I rarely watch youtube videos but I’m very glad I took the time to watch that one.

    Ok so no, I never have thought you guys (or gosh, Addison!) have gone hungry or are in any way malnourished. I admittedly find it paradoxical that you and Neal are self-professed anti? chefs (:D) and yet have such a tiny budget. Literally everyone else I know who claims the former goes out to eat almost every night. But that is just one of many things that I love/impresses me about you! I am also so impressed by your ability to eat the same meals so frequently. In fact, you have inspired me to take a similar approach to our meals and I have actually started rotating about five different meals each week for dinner (the other two are either leftovers or dinners with family).

    I guess my point is that I think you’re in a unique position where you can be a role model for others who are living in impoverished conditions. I know it’s different when you voluntarily choose to live a simpler lifestyle vs living in poverty involuntarily but I think you are more relatable than the average case worker. You have real life tips and tricks for making it work. I am not idealistic enough to think that the majority of people will ask for that kind of advice or be open to it, but I think you could reach some of them if they feel empathy from you. Honestly, I think if you do this long term, you will have to use a lot of the same mental tricks that other human service workers use to keep themselves emotionally healthy.

    Also one last thing. Have you ever read anything by John Cheese? He is a very crude writer so feel free to spare yourself some language. But it opened my eyes to the psychology of poverty–not an encompassing approach of course, but insight into things I had never thought about (or at least since college). Here is a discussion about one of his articles . His writing has been the biggest influence on how I view poverty–not even kidding.

    Comment by kei02003 — March 24, 2014 @ 3:47 am

  4. P.S. I now feel guilty because I tend to recommend the worst things to my most sensitive friends……..feel free to ignore everything I just wrote! And also hooray for a second job! I can’t wait to hear about it on Thursday

    Comment by kei02003 — March 24, 2014 @ 3:49 am

  5. Great post. I confess that my biggest problem right now is dealing with people who lack empathy. I am surrounded by people who are extremely well off living in an area where he cost of living is exceptionally low. This combination has led to a very prideful community of people who think that since their success was easy so all success is easy. There is so much hate for poor people in my stake. They truly believe that all poor people are lazy welfare queens with iPhones and fancy cars. I wish I could encourage more people to see outside themselves.

    Comment by Emily — March 24, 2014 @ 4:05 pm

  6. Oh, very nice video. I may just have to share that on Facebook. 🙂

    Comment by Elizabeth Harris — March 26, 2014 @ 8:25 pm

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