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The toughest part? Escaping the 'poverty mentality'

Angela Pote realized the vicious cycle of poverty and decided to take action.

Angela Pote, at her home in Norwood, Delaware County. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)
Angela Pote, at her home in Norwood, Delaware County. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)Read more

ANGELA POTE remembers many low points in her life - living in a place where she had to fight rats from the crib. Or sending one of her sons to school with a single Pop-Tart for lunch, because that's all she had. Maybe one of the lowest, though, was living in a house in Fishtown with barely any walls; there was electricity, but no heat or hot water. She would curl up in bed with her six kids trying to stay warm. This was hard because they lived there through a winter of ice storms. Fortunately, her mother-in-law lived down the street, so she would take her kids there to feed and wash them.

She lived like this for eight months.

Today, she is telling this tale far from that house: She sits at the large dining room of her six-bedroom house a few miles from the airport, a house she bought with cash. And although she is far from Fishtown where she was born 40 years ago, and far from the hardships she experienced growing up as a teenage mother who dropped out of school, she takes nothing for granted, not even her hard-won stability.

The springboard that propelled her to a new life was not something she would recommend: She was working as a driver for a bakery company, and a car slammed into her, leaving her with a badly injured back. She is still in constant pain. A legal settlement allowed her to move out of Fishtown and into the large and rambling house in Norwood, near Chester. But the change she made in her life was more than monetary, even more than geographic. She speaks thoughtfully about her conscious effort to move beyond what she calls "the poverty mentality."

For her, that means not just a lack of resources, but a lack of understanding of how to use the resources that are available. Mainly, though, "the first step is understanding and accepting where you are."

"People measure poverty differently," she said. "At different stages of my life, my view of poverty changed. When I was teenaged mom, I didn't understand I was impoverished. I had welfare. My husband never made enough to get out of the system. Then in my 20s and 30s, I remember thinking, 'Damn, I am poor.' Boy, it's something to realize.

"I know so many people they think they're OK. They don't realize it could benefit to work toward change."

She is still struggling, with many days of an empty refrigerator, and many mouths to feed: five of her children (she now has eight kids) live with her, along with some grandchildren. But she is focused and thoughtful, and now she is struggling for something: a master's degree.

She's about to finish her first year at Widener, where she's studying to be a neuropsychologist. "I love being in school. I know that this is getting me where I want to be, a field where I can help."

Coming from poverty, it's hard to break away from the desire to have things, whether essential things, like food and shelter, or nonessential things like furniture.

"What I always wanted: sheets on the bed, and clean socks and T-shirts for the kids. I can't explain yearning, like water on a hot day. I'm further along than I ever have been. I'm stable. But I need to keep moving - I'm not satisfied mentally or socially."