On Voluntary Poverty (Part 1) – Dorothy Day

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 27, Easter 2003
This article is reprinted from the May 1952 Catholic Worker.

Poverty is a very mysterious thing. We need to be always writing and thinking about it. And of course striving for it. It would seem strange that we must strive to be poor, to remain poor. ‘Just give me a chance,’ I can hear people say. Just let me get my debts paid. Just let me get a few of the things I need and then I’ll begin to think of poverty and its pleasures. Meanwhile, I’ve had nothing but.’

This last month I have talked to a man who lives in a four-room apartment with a wife and four children and relatives besides. He may have a regular job and enough food to go around, but he is poor in light and air space. Down at the Peter Maurin Farm, each of the corners of the women’s dormitory area are occupied, and when an extra visitor arrives she must live in the middle of the room. During a visit to Georgia and South Carolina, I have seen the shacks Black people are living in, and the trailer camps around Augusta, Georgia, where the hydrogen bomb plant is under construction. Families of construction workers have lived on the move for years, and make up part of our great migrant population. They may have trailers but they are also poor, physically speaking, in the things that are necessary for a good life. Trailers cost money, so do cars, and food is high, and no matter how high wages go, a sudden illness or an accumulation of doctor and hospital bills may mean a sudden plunge into destitution. Everybody talks about security and everybody shudders at the idea of poverty. And in fear and anguish people succumb, mentally and physically, until our hospitals, especially our mental hospitals, are crowded all over the country.

I am convinced that if we had an understanding and a love of poverty we would begin to be as free and joyous as St Francis, who had a passion for Lady Poverty, and lives on with us in joyous poverty through all the centuries since his death.

It is hard to write about poverty. We live in a slum neighbourhood that is becoming ever more crowded, with Puerto Ricans who are doubling up in unspeakably filthy, dark, crowded tenements on the Lower East Side and in Harlem, who have the lowest wages in the city, who do the hardest work, who are little and undernourished from generations of privation and exploitation by us. We used to have a hard time getting rid of all the small sized clothes which came in to us. Ladies who could eat steak and salads and keep their slim figures, contributed good clothes, small sized shoes, and I can remember Julia Porcelli saying once, ‘Why are the poor always fat? We never get enough clothes to fit them.’ The American poor may be fat with the starches they eat, but the Puerto Rican poor are lean. The stock in the clothes room moves quickly now.

It is hard to write about poverty when a visitor tells you of how he and his family all lived in a basement room and did sweat shop work at night to make ends meet, and how the landlord came in and belaboured them for not paying his exorbitant rent.

It is hard to write of poverty when the backyard at Chrystie Street still has the stock of furniture piled to one side that was put on the street in an eviction in a next door tenement.

How can we say to these people, ‘Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven,’ when we are living comfortably in a warm house, sitting down to a good table, and are clothed decently. Maybe not so decently. I had one occasion to visit the City Shelter last month where families are cared for, and I sat there for a couple of hours, contemplating poverty and destitution, sharing the room with a family of these same Puerto Ricans with two of the children asleep in the parents’ arms, and four others sprawling against them; a young couple, the mother pregnant; and an elderly Black woman, who had a job, she said, but wasn’t to go on to it till the next night. I made myself known to a young man in charge (I did not want to appear to be spying on them, when all I wanted to know was the latest on the apartment-finding situation for homeless families) and he apologised for making me wait, saying he had thought I was one of the clients.

Conception of poverty

We must talk about poverty because people lose sight of it, can scarcely believe that it exists. So many people come in to visit us and tell us how their families were brought up in poverty and how, through hard work and decent habits and cooperation, they managed to educate all the children and raise up priests and nuns to the Church. They concede that health and good habits, a good family, take them out of the poverty class, no matter how mean the slum they may have been forced to inhabit. No, they don’t know about the poor. Their conception of poverty is something as neat and well-ordered as a nun’s cell.

And maybe no one can be told, maybe they will have to experi­ence it. Or maybe it is a grace which they must pray for. We usually get what we pray for, and maybe we are afraid to pray for it. And yet I am con­vinced that it is the grace we most need in this age of crisis, at this time when expenditures reach into the billions to defend ‘our American way of life.’ Maybe it is this de­fense which will bring down upon us this poverty which we do not pray for.

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