Analysis & Comment

Opinion | A Hidden Currency of Incalculable Worth

Poverty is the great thief of time, robbing parents of hours spent with their children. It takes them away from sporting events, choir concerts, ballet recitals, afternoon homework and watching Saturday morning cartoons, snuggled on the couch in pajamas. Despite the indestructible myth of the poor as lazy, many heads of struggling families endure long, unpredictable hours for little pay to provide for their offspring.

Scholars call this time poverty. It may seem unconventional to describe a lack of seconds, minutes and hours as a form of destitution. But poverty is a scarcity that extends to every aspect of life.

For years, my mother was among those working the late shift at a Chrysler plant — from 2 to 12 p.m., six days a week. Sunday was her day off, and regardless of her fatigue, she carried us to church. Those few hours gave her a chance to lift her entreaties to God, pleading that he might be a source of protection because she could not always be there to watch over us.

Friends and neighbors drove my siblings and me to and from school. When available, aunties, cousins and grandmothers babysat us in the evenings. That no one parents alone is a truism, and this is especially the case for the poor. Oversight of children is patched together, and favors are bartered to get through each week. When I was growing up, none of this struck me as odd, because all the children we knew were often left to their own devices.

What I felt most strongly were material signs of poverty. No one in my neighborhood commented on my periodically absent mother, but some did note the lack of a Nike emblem on my sneakers. There was a kind of soul-crushing mockery at school. You lived in difficult circumstances at home and went to the place where you might make a better life for yourself, and the other kids made fun of your suffering. We were all both victim and persecutor in equal measure.

When I dreamed of my future, I never said that I wanted to be time wealthy. Instead, I longed for tangible things that I’d be able to give to a family of my own. I wanted to put a financial barrier around my kids’ self-esteem. I looked forward to a moment when they wouldn’t stare nervously into their closet trying to pick a passable outfit. I didn’t want them to be hesitant to invite friends over, uncertain of what might be seen. The joy they felt at Christmas and birthdays would be genuine and not performative. Poor kids quickly learn how to fake enthusiasm to avoid exacerbating their parents’ guilt over their meager offerings. We smile after receiving presents that do little more than remind us of what we do not have.

How do we get to that better future? Once again, it is about time. Climbing the economic ladder requires long days to make the grades to get into college and perhaps graduate school. Then come extended hours to get ahead in our careers. Unlike our parents, many of us are not trading time for survival. We sacrifice time for money because we saw that modeled. And no one taught us how to stop. How do we know when we should give up that payday for time? There will always be a better home, a supposedly higher-quality school district.

Everything in the culture tells us to keep going, stay with the grind, develop a side hustle. The signs of that success are visible. My kids can have the shoes I couldn’t afford. They live in the kind of neighborhood that was closed to me.

We cannot show off time; it is a hidden currency, but it is of incalculable worth. Most studies show that the time parents spend with children has an outsize impact on their emotional health. Kids are better adjusted and perform better in school when parents are more involved.

Though we know time is important, we seem to have trouble finding it. It keeps going missing. And time with our children during their youth is a nonrenewable resource; it only diminishes.

I recognized there was a problem in my own family after our then-7-year-old daughter kept asking me, “Dad, do you have to work again today? Do you have to go out of town again?”

At first, I pushed away her inquiries, thinking she didn’t understand the complexities of adulthood. The sacrifices were for her and her siblings, weren’t they?

The forced smile that she gave me when I explained I was busy reminded me of the lying smile I put on for my mother when she gave me a sweater for Christmas I could never wear in public.

I asked my 12-year-old daughter, “Would you rather have 20 percent more stuff or 20 percent more time?” She replied quickly, “With you? Time. Where would I put all that stuff, anyway?”

Their words persuaded me to make another midcourse parenting correction common to those learning as we go. That meant taking a hard look at my travel schedule and reducing the speaking engagements that I accepted. But it is more than just travel. For writers, there is the ever-present specter of brand building. We have to be creating content and engaging. But social media isn’t just a time eater; it is also an energy destroyer and a mood shaper. I couldn’t be commenting on everything happening everywhere and be emotionally present with my children.

How do we know when we have enough money? How does one discern when the cost-benefit analysis tips in favor of time? This is a question my mother never had to ask.

I am not arguing for a better work-life balance, although it involves that. I am speaking about recognizing that the rabbit of more wealth we are chasing is always a bit ahead of us, and we can lose sight of our children while seeking it.

Thinking about this may seem like the dilemma of the privileged who have the luxury to ponder existential questions. That criticism is fair but possibly shortsighted. We cannot value things for others that we do not value for ourselves. If money isn’t sufficient to make the wealthy good parents, increasing cash flow is not enough for struggling families. Time and material aid need not be in competition. We need to start thinking about policies aimed at freeing up time for impoverished families as a form of aid.

We could begin by defining a healthy society as one in which everyone has a place to stay, food to eat and time to enjoy the fruits of their labor with those for whom they labor. A living wage should be one in which there is space for something beyond work.

Too many Americans believe that poverty isn’t enough. That we need to punish the poor — assuming that if we make it difficult enough, they will work harder to get out of poverty. We treat callousness as an act of love. The poor, so the logic goes, do not deserve such luxuries as leisure. But my mother did work hard caring for us with what little reserves she had. Expanding that reservoir of time would be a boon to the children in our midst, and by extension, it might point to a healthier way of being for us all.

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Esau McCaulley (@esaumccaulley) is a contributing Opinion writer and an associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. He is the author of “Reading While Black: African American biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope” and the forthcoming book “How Far to the Promised Land: One Black Family’s Story of Hope and Survival in the American South. He lives in Wheaton, Ill., with his wife and four children.

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