In the process of writing the book about my bike ride across America, I began to detail my financial experience. Those memories stirred up some strong feelings. They would cause me to transition back into that world of poverty driven anxiety while trying to stay focused on bicycling across America with no funds. I was able to tuck my feelings away because it was only a temporary reality for me. I could pick up the phone and ask for help, as you will see I had to do later in the book. I called it social media panhandling. But make no mistake, I knew it was far different than having to stand on the side of the road and hold a sign asking complete strangers for help. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have to live with these experiences full-time with no visible end in sight.
I used technology and an iPhone to appeal to my network to help me make it across the country so I wouldn’t have to quit. My experience, though extreme, would never give me the true feeling of displacement and despair of those exposed to chronic poverty and the chronic stress associated with it. At any given moment, I could walk away from that lifestyle and return home to a relatively comfortable life. For other people, poverty is very real and potentially dangerous because it isn’t temporary. They don’t have anyone they can call for relief, they definitely don’t have a network of people not only willing to help but rooting for their success.
Despite that, there were days when my brief experience with it, almost had me in tears. My inability to process anything past my next meal or figuring out where we were going to stay was debilitating to my cognitive functioning. There were many times during this ride that I wanted to break from the planned routine and return home to just organize some “Feed the Homeless” campaign instead of submerging myself in the ride. I could feel good about organizing an event and feel like I’d done my part. This journey helped me realize how deep poverty really reaches. It doesn’t just touch your stomach it touches your entire existence.
At this campsite I realized the plight of minorities and how relationships, experiences and information is vital to closing the income and education gaps. I also realized how important it is to establish ourselves and pass this information along. This can be a difficult feat when you have a limited network.
People living below the poverty line, seldom have the network necessary to even pull themselves up because access to the proper networks is denied through disassociation. It reminds me of the movie Trading Places when Dan Aykroyd’s character suddenly lost everything and became poor. He lost his material possessions, his job, and interestingly enough, his network. It drove him crazy. Very often, people suffering from chronic poverty either do not have a network or do not have a strong enough network they can turn to. Your network can be your anchor or it can be your lifeline and pull you back to safety. I was and am grateful for my network. It allowed me to continue the bike ride and serve a greater purpose.
I do a lot of research while writing. I found an article How Poverty Affects the Brain & Behavior. This article shares studies that prove there is an inherent difference in the brain’s functions based on it’s environment. Poverty literally changes the way the brain works. It’s a survival mechanism.
One study in this article monitored the decision making abilities of people regarding financial decisions at various levels of severity. Poor people made equally astute decisions regarding simple financial scenarios as those who were considered rich and made significantly worse decisions regarding more difficult financial scenarios. You may think that the poor people were probably less well equipped to handle the more difficult situations. That resulted in an experiment with Princeton students. This is essentially an experiment to get an immediate response from the brain in similar situations. The students were divided into two groups, one would be “poor” and the other would be “rich”. During game play, the “poor” group were playing with certain limitations that forced them to take expensive risks during the next round. The “rich” group didn’t have the handicap and therefore made fewer risky decisions. These studies prove that just because a person is poor, it doesn’t mean they inherently make worse decisions or that they are any less capable than anyone else. They show that the effects of poverty wreaks a certain and unrelenting brand of havoc on the mind, and anyone in that situation, whether short or long term, would perform less efficiently than they are capable of.