Saturday, November 8, 2014

What My Plumbing Problems Reminded Me About What Dr. Helen Raschke Taught Me About Poverty

Our water got turned back on yesterday.  We’d sprung a geyser a week ago, so since then, we’ve only had water for 20 minutes a day, long enough to shower, brush, flush, and fill the bathtubs for future flushes.  We knew we needed new pipes, so after the third plumbing call in as many weeks, I bit the bullet.  We now have all new pipes ($3,904), and although the plumber is an affable fellow, I hope never to see his butt again.

Living without running water for a week made me think about what the late Dr. Helen Raschke taught me about poverty twenty years ago.

Before I met Dr. Raschke, I thought poverty was about having to make instead of buy Christmas presents.  I knew that public schools provided poor children free breakfast and lunch, that Medicaid paid their doctor bills, and that the government subsidized their housing.  I thought that covered everything. 

Boy, did Dr. Helen Raschke open my eyes.  A marriage and family therapist who was led by her profound Episcopal faith, she had established a free legal clinic to assist women in poverty.  She happened to be the wife of my Episcopal priest, Dr. Vern Raschke, which is how I came to know her.

Helen told me, “People who live in chronic poverty are not simply people who lack disposable income.  They are Multiple-Problem People.

 “Multiple-Problem People have physical and mental health problems.  They have employment problems, school problems, legal problems, marriage problems, and problems with their neighbors and families.  They are often illiterate and have learning problems. They lack adequate housing, transportation, child care and health care. 

“They get their water, electricity and gas cut off, and then they can’t afford the deposits to get them on again.  Without power, they can’t use the refrigerator, stove, or microwave, so they use their limited funds to buy junk and fast food until the money runs out.  When the water is cut off, they can’t shower, wash their hair, or even flush the toilet. Think about it.”  

She then explained about the inability to provide for basic needs like deodorant, soap and toothpaste.  And even sanitary napkins.

Then she switched to cultural disadvantages of Multiple Problem People.  “They don’t know things that you and I take for granted: They don’t know that dirty dishes attract vermin, that their child needs a regular bedtime routine, or that they’re never going to win the lottery.”

Then because she knew that I’m an animal lover, she added, “And they don’t know that the dog tied to the tree in the back yard needs fresh food and water every day, much less that he needs to be permanently unchained and running free in a fenced yard, or that he needs shelter, regular veterinary care, and companionship.”

Then she began to explain how the problems interacted to create new problems: For example, if a mother had neither dependable transportation nor a strong social network, those two problems interacted with each other so that she couldn’t even go pick up a bottle of diarrhea medicine for a sick child, who then became sicker and therefore missed a week of school, which convinced the teacher that he was irresponsible, which...

So here am I today taking my running water for granted.  This morning, I washed a week’s worth of clothes and ran the dishwasher.  This afternoon, I relished my shower.  Washing my hair was darn near erotic.  I even gave new puppy Woodrow a warm bath.  And I shouted, “Yee-ha!” when I flushed the toilet. 

All those things I take for granted.  All those things I forget that poor people don’t.  So tonight, this is my prayer:

Oh God who created and then parted the waters, this night provide water for thy children who have none.  Bring thy rains so that the dying dog who is chained to a tree might have a sip to quench his thirst.  This I ask Thee, Lord, in the name of Thy Son who walked upon the water and who turned water into wine.




  1. Helen was my mom...I really enjoyed reading this.


    1. Richard, although I know you don't remember me, I remember you well. I also remember how much your mother loved you. What a wonderful woman she was. And your father helped my faith to grow and deepen like no other priest I have ever known. Please tell him I said so. Thank you for writing. Millie