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Poverty on our road

October 16, 2008
A face of poverty but also hope from far away--a deaf student from Humble Hearts school in Nairobi, after the rain storm.

A face of poverty but also hope from far away--a deaf student from Humble Hearts school in Nairobi, after the rain storm.

Today’s Blog Action Day, a chance to get people talking about poverty. How do you begin? I like the feist of Garden Rant’s “Fight the…” essay today, and you should read it, because it’s moving and intelligent and full of great ideas anyone can do in their neighborhood. And you should definitely go to this resources page for numerous microfinancing projects that lend money to small businesspeople around the world, just like any business loan, along with other concrete ways to help.

But the conversation I want to have is closer to home, and I guess it comes down to how often we don’t think about poverty, how in fact we (and I’m speaking to people like me, who use technology daily and have the leisure to read and write blogs, make gardens, cook healthy food, and express themselves creatively) avoid it, close it off with rolled-up windows, gates, zoning laws, and try to forget about the chokehold of poverty, not just the kind beamed into the TV from somewhere you’ll never go, but the poor in our own towns. The city newspaper this morning cites the statistic that 27% of families in NY are below the federal poverty level, and that 28% is the national average. If more than 1 in 4 families is labeled poor, that means you probably know one. (The federal poverty level is set at $21,200 for a family of four.)

When I started this post it was about the huge disparities in basic comforts and services that I saw growing up on the Texas-Mexico border and recently in Kenya and Tanzania, where most of the people are desperately poor, living in conditions so cramped and dire they strain the imagination. One day in Mathare or the industrial area of Nairobi and you want to head first for a shower, then for a drink, then for the airport. Going home to those slums every day can crumple hearts and emotions into strange, unrecognizable shapes, as the horrific stories of neighbor killing neighbor early this year in Kenya told.

You can’t get your head around issues like that, and it will take decades, reversals of cultural bias and government corruption, and thousands of individual efforts to begin to change them. Like the work of Angel Covers, Kari, Beatrice, and the Humble Hearts teachers working for little pay because they believe in the potential of the children, deaf and hearing, to become more than their circumstances will otherwise damn them to. It was a spiritual and practical awakening for me to spend time with them and see how one person’s determination, faith, and will can mean transformation in the lives of others. Their work goes on, helped by donations of money, supplies, and ideas for how to become self-sustaining.

But home in central NY again, the daily shocks of being in the Third World are gone. So gone in fact, that it was jarring the other day, riding home on the bus from campus, to see flashing police car lights in front of the Statler bus stop. Was it an accident? No, a vagrant. Two campus police were talking to a man in ragged clothes sitting on the steps. Clearly not a student, he didn’t belong and was about to be escorted away. Then it occurred to me: going back and forth on my country commute, I rarely see poverty and homelessness now. Certainly not on the Cornell campus, and not too often in Ithaca proper.

It’s almost like it’s disappeared. And this, I think, is what gets us. We live well, so we forget.

Then the other day an older retired neighbor who lives down our road, and whose amazing garden I love to visit, was talking about making new beds for vegetables. My response was to praise his zealous gardening, but he flatly said it was to grow more food. He had just applied for food stamps. With no retirement plan, his only income is Social Security, and that doesn’t go far, so he’s taking stock of what he has to take care of himself, alone, in old age.

My friend has shared the news of his want, and I cannot ignore it. Poverty is on my street. It’s also around the corner, in walking distance up roads where it feels like Depression era photographs. It’s in my hometown and yours. It’s a beast, and turning our backs won’t make it disappear.

No telling how this Blog Action Day is going to get people talking, but I hope it will get people looking, listening, praying, sharing, and acting.

Thanks for reading. Go start your conversation.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 16, 2008 10:26 am

    Then the question is, how do you help him without embarrassing him, causing him to lose his self-respect and dignity. I have been on the receiving end of charity that made me feel like the real purpose was to make the giver feel good.

  2. October 16, 2008 11:35 am

    Thanks for the very intelligent question, Kathy. It’s the one left in my head when I finally quit writing this after midnight.
    I didn’t know how to respond that day when he told me, and I didn’t say much, but I think the right answer might be to be as straightforward in offering help as he was in saying he is in need. I’ve been fortunate never to experience the kind of shortage and fears he’s having, but when I have needed help, I’ve been shown charity by people who gave without expectation of getting back, and that attitude is my example. I’m sorry you had a bad experience, and I think there are too many people inclined to act from the wrong instinct–to make them feel good.

    Still, I don’t know him well, and in the moment he told me, I felt first scared for him at laying out a big problem, then awkward for just the point you make.

    So I plan to ask him if he can use help–maybe in signing up for services or finding some low-cost options like I needed in July when I was ill but without health insurance. I plan to make extra-large batches of soup and bread when I cook and then share, plan to be available as a friend, so he’ll call if something goes wrong.

    Before I knew he was having trouble I wanted to be his friend and good neighbor. Respect for his wishes and dignity will guide me in being a friend now that I know more.

  3. October 16, 2008 10:56 pm

    Great post Lynn! Good luck as you reach out to your neighbor.

  4. October 23, 2008 10:50 pm

    What a thought provoking post. One of my classes here, (community building,) thinks a lot about this issue. All the students in there have been active in volunteer work for quite awhile and it’s so inspiring to hear the discussions we get into. The professor has been doing community building work for years and just being able to soak up her experience is amazing. It’s also great to know that there are many people like her working at both the grassroots and the government level to promote equality. Good luck with your neighbor. xo

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