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  • The reality of poverty in America is more complicated than the accounts of left and right suggest. Tweet This
  • Poor people are not merely deadbeat dads or welfare queens—but nor are they the hapless victims of structural forces. Tweet This

Fast-food workers are striking, demanding $15 an hour. Pope Francis, TIME’s Person of the Year, lambasts “trickle-down” economic theories for perpetuating inequality. President Obama says inequality is “the defining challenge of our time.” George Packer’s brilliant journalistic narrative of America’s “unwinding” earns the National Book Award for nonfiction. Something is brewing.

But is it really that bad out there? People are dying in other countries because they don’t have access to clean water, so does America even have real poverty? Poor people in America have a lot of stuff, compared to most people on the planet. I know one fit young man who quit his job because he didn’t feel like working. He lives off of his girlfriend’s food stamps, lives in federally subsidized housing, and often asks his friends and family for money—after spending the last $60 of his girlfriend’s child support (from another guy) to buy a new video game. A video game! That’s the kind of poverty that makes some people say, “To hell with bromides about inequality in America!”

It’s true that journalists often write hagiographies of American poverty—you get the impression that poor people are mostly hardworking folk, the hapless victims of structural forces beyond their control, and if Washington could just get its act together, they’d be better off. On the reverse side, some right-wingers tell tall tales of irresponsibility, of neighborhoods populated by welfare queens and deadbeat dads.

But the reality is more human—and therefore more conflicted—than both accounts suggest.

I’m thinking of the fit, unemployed young man I just mentioned. He suffers from depression, but doesn’t take the medication he is prescribed. Things were so bad in high school that he went to the psych ward after he refused to go to school and was aggressive towards his mom. Since then, he’s had some good times—he gets a job and keeps it for a few months, but he always finds himself falling back into depression (especially during the winter) and quits. That’s a force bigger than him, and he needs help. He doesn’t seek help. Instead he is quick to take responsibility for his situation, telling himself that he needs to stick to a job and save money to go to college.

If you looked at his profile on paper, you might conclude he’s a deadbeat dad. When you meet him in person, you think, ‘Man, this guy really loves his daughter.’

He has a two-year-old daughter with his cohabiting girlfriend, and he adores her. “Oh, look at this one!” he gushes, his girlfriend huddled next to him, as they look at the picture on his cell phone of their daughter napping in the dresser drawer. “Aw, she looks so cute in this one,” he says again, not able to help himself, showing us a picture of her smiling mischievously, the same grin that her mother sometimes gets.

He can’t stand the thought of separating from his girlfriend, in part because he can’t bear the prospect of being separated from his daughter. He helps his girlfriend’s son (born to a different father) with his homework, and shed a few tears after the boy swore, in a fit of vengeance because my friend made him take a bath, that he would never call him “dad.” If you were looking at his profile on paper, you might conclude he’s a deadbeat dad. When you meet him in person, you think, “Man, this guy really loves his daughter. So why did he spend his girlfriend’s last $60 of child support on a video game?”

I’m also thinking of my friend, whom I met while he was living across the street, in his grandparents’ garage. He had just gotten fired from a fast-food chain because he didn’t show up to work on time, he said.

The first time I heard his voice it was late on a Saturday night, after midnight, and my wife and I were watching a movie. It was summertime, so we had the windows open. “I love you with all my fuckin’ heart!” he was almost yelling into his iPhone, pacing on his grandparents’ front porch. “In fact, I don’t have a heart—you have it. And if you never talk to me again, you will still always have my broken heart—always!” The desperation in his voice sent chills down my spine. “You’re the only thing I’ve got,” he told her.

A few days later, I noticed a girl in a beat-up Dodge Neon pull up across the street. His girlfriend, the one he poured his heart out to that Saturday night, was moving into the garage with him. A few weeks later, I met him for the first time. One of the first things he showed me was the sonogram of their baby, a little dot in a haze of black and white. His girlfriend was twelve weeks pregnant. And he showed me the “New Dad” app on his iPhone, on which he tracked his baby’s development and received tips about how to keep his girlfriend happy and comfortable with each stage of pregnancy.

Among the first things he showed me was the sonogram of their baby, and the “New Dad” app on his iPhone.

He told me about how his dad beat him bad when he was a boy, and that he got so used to pain that when he worked at the restaurant, he sometimes left his hand on the burning grill to freak his coworkers out. As a child, he also watched his dad do drugs. Those are things he didn’t ask for, didn’t deserve. And at sixteen, he got into pills and meth. But he quit all that the day he started dating his girlfriend, he said. It was time to step up and be a man. They’re both twenty years old.

For the four months or so that he lived in the garage, he didn’t have a job. He slept in and played video games in the garage while his pregnant girlfriend worked the cash register at a grocery store. When she came home, he greeted her with a kiss.

After he got into a spat with his aunt (who lives with her parents, his grandparents), he moved out into his girlfriend’s grandma’s house thirty minutes away, and I don’t see him as often anymore. His Mamaw told me that he was back on meth, but I don’t want to believe it: the last time I saw him, he said he was working toward becoming a manager at the deli restaurant where he had started working.  And the other day I saw a picture on his Facebook wall, his days-old daughter sleeping on his bare tattooed chest, his eyes closed and mouth shut and jaw clenched, the look of quiet resolve.

That’s poverty in America.