Living Around the Poverty Line

May 6, 2014 at 2:31 pm Leave a comment

Eleveting_Summit_0014 copyThis post was contributed by guest writer Lanette Andrew. An undergraduate student, Lanette reflects on unexpected feelings she discovered while taking Design Thinking for Social Innovation, a course in Portland State University’s online certificate in the Business of Social Innovation.

I would have told you that I had compassion and empathy prior to this class. I was raised to have compassion and help others.  Experiencing homelessness three times, all while employed full time, I thought my perspective was fairly clear. This course has changed what I thought the problems were and how I can help address those issues.

Researching the struggles of families living around the poverty line, through government and third-party organizations, as well as expert and beneficiary interviews, gave me real-life examples and a new perspective showing a completely different truth about the same situation.

The years I spent living with stress, guilt, and fear as my constant companions, while struggling to keep a roof over my family’s head, have left their mark in many ways, mental and physical.  Residual effects include Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, physical health issues, and the most crippling for me, the feeling of shame.  Shame is isolating.  Shame showed up when I was feeding my son food from the food bank, or asking for an extension to pay for utilities or rent, and in particular when I had to tell my son that all of our possessions were gone.  I was renting a room at that time, all of our possessions were in a storage unit, and I could not make that rent payment. American society shames people for being poor, and even though my friends would not have done that to me, I still allowed the shame to keep me silent and isolated.  If you have not had to count small change out for fuel on a semi-regular basis, then you will not understand how going to the gas station can cause anxiety and sweaty palms.  The worst times were when I had to sometimes cancel visitation with my child because there was just enough gas money to make it to work, but not enough to pick up and drop off my child.

Course research led me to read an article from Greater Pulse Portland about the gap between the Self-Sufficiency Standard and the government’s published poverty line; after reading the article, my situation made so much sense.  An example from the article: it requires 34% more income for a family of four to be self-sufficient than what the government considers poverty level.   The stereotypes that people accepting aid are addicts and bums have been bantered around society for so long that, even working full-time, I still felt like a loser needing assistance.  Interviews with families struggling to exist around the poverty line were both insightful and heartbreaking.  I could relate to their struggles and felt less shame with the first-hand knowledge that I was not alone in mine.  This knowledge alleviated some of the shame and guilt.

The interviews I conducted with families in economic crisis changed my thoughts on ways to address this issue. When entering the Impact Entrepreneurs course on Design Thinking for Social Innovation, my perspective was that the issue was too large, too overwhelming, and I believed one person could do very little.  I thought that I’d complete the course looking at the issue from a higher level and remain detached. That is not what happened. Instead, I dragged my poverty issues out, admitted to them, and began examining and using them to develop a solution.

The interviewees talked about the current assistance programs and provided insight as to where they perceived gaps.  Each person interviewed had slightly different perceptions about the same benefit programs.  All were true, just different for each family situation.  The families interviewed, like myself, all needed assistance at more than one time, when a significant life event tipped the family finances off the precarious balance they had worked so hard to maintain.  Most importantly, I understand how a person can feel intensely grateful for the assistance, and at the same time dislike having to ask for it.  The struggling families all expressed the same feelings.  Like myself, they all wanted to be self-sufficient.

Fear of not being able to provide for your family is debilitating; no one should have to live like that. I feel fortunate that I am coming out of this tough time in my life with a sense of purpose and hope — hope that on a small scale I can make a difference and offer some families a hand toward economic sustainability.  I will keep defining what my part in the solution is going to be as the year progresses.

To find out more about PSU’s online certificate in The Business of Social Innovation, and the upcoming course on Storytelling and Impact Measurement for Social Innovation, visit our website or email

Entry filed under: Design Thinking, Social Entrepreneurship, Social Entrepreneurship Certificate, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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