Poverty in America: it's us, not them
By Pamela Dolan on August 7, 2013
© St. Louis Post-Dispatch
What does a poor person look like? When you picture someone who lives in poverty, do you see someone with white skin or black, someone who lives in the city or the country, a native English speaker or someone who struggles with the language? Do you see yourself?
If recent reports are to be believed, very few of us are immune from what social scientists and demographers call "economic insecurity."
More specifically, "Four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream," according to an exclusive Associated Press article published last week.
Four out of five. That means that almost 80 percent of people (of all races) in this country will find themselves teetering on the economic edge, or falling over it, at least once during the course of their lives. The number rises to 90 percent for African-Americans.
I'm not much of a numbers person, but those are staggering statistics.
Once upon a time, I felt myself staring into that "economic insecurity" abyss. In spite of a great education and a supportive family, my husband and I were hit hard by the bursting of the tech bubble and the economic downturn that followed on the heels of September 11, 2001. For a period of time, we were both of us underemployed and underpaid, while living in the most expensive part of the country (the heart of Silicon Valley) and raising two young children.
It was hard to sleep at night. The weight of worry sat on my chest like a predator and dogged me through my daily routines. Shame was a constant companion. I prayed and prayed, and I scrimped and saved, but we literally would not have made it through that time without the help of family and friends.
The memory that still causes me to weep with gratitude is of the babysitter who refused to take our money. She watched our children for free so that I could go to work, and she did it with a level of love and creativity that still takes my breath away. She was not well off, and it was a real sacrifice for her. We repaid her when we were back on our feet. Or, to be clear, we gave her the money we owed her. But really there is no way to repay that degree of kindness. None--except perhaps to pay it forward to others.
I know my struggles have been minor compared to what so many other Americans have suffered and are suffering, not to mention people around the world. In fact, now that our lives are a bit more stable, I find myself with a different struggle, the struggle to make sense of the huge disparities in our world.
Frequently I wonder: what did I do to deserve such amazing abundance? A family, an education, a home, friends, books, time to study and write, a little money for travel...it is simply too painful to contemplate the enormous gap between my own simple pleasures and the desperation of so many who live in poverty, hounded by disease, infant mortality, and violence.
How do we live with the knowledge of that terrible, terrible gap? Is gratitude enough? Is charity the answer? What can any one of us do to get at the systemic issues that create these inequalities?
First, we need to face the facts that the numbers are telling us. There is no true economic security for most of us. Again from the AP report:
"Poverty is no longer an issue of `them', it's an issue of `us'," says Mark Rank, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who calculated the numbers. "Only when poverty is thought of as a mainstream event, rather than a fringe experience that just affects blacks and Hispanics, can we really begin to build broader support for programs that lift people in need."
Poverty is a mainstream event. There is no longer a "them." It's all about us--all of us.
Second, then, we need to educate ourselves about the issues. I plan to start by attending a free screening of the movie A Place at the Table. This documentary specifically addresses issues of hunger in America by telling the stories of three people who "maintain their dignity even as they struggle just to eat."
If we don't put a face on the problem, we're far less motivated to do something about it.
I asked Peggy Beljan Schaefer, chair of the St. Louis team of Bread for the World (one of the sponsors of the movie) what people might get out of seeing the film. She said in reply,
"The problem of hunger in America is different than it is in other countries, particularly in developing nations. In the United States the issue is not about a lack of food. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that 40% of food produced in the U.S. is thrown away. That equates to 20 pounds per person per month. No, lack of food is not the issue behind hunger, it is poverty. If we are to end hunger in the United States, we need to ask ourselves, 'Why are people poor?'."
The screening will be at Trinity Lutheran Church in Chesterfield on Wednesday, August 14. The showing will begin at 7p.m. with the doors opening at 6:30. The event is free and open to the public.
Maybe these are small steps. But I refuse to give in to a sense of futility. Being overwhelmed doesn't do anybody any good. Jesus invited us in to a life lived with a sense of abundance. God has made a world that is very good, where there can and should be enough--and more than enough--for every living creature to receive his or her daily bread. How can we give up on that?
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