And talk about poverty. It’s Blog Action Day. (Well, it was when I started writing this post.)
First, some numbers to think about (plagiarized from Half in Ten):
- More than thirty-seven million Americans live below the official poverty line (less than $21,203 for a family of four), and more than 18 million children are poor in this country.
- Most poor families live on far less than the poverty level – the annual income of the average poor family is more than $8,500 below the poverty line. Even worse, more than 15 million people live below half the poverty line, and more than one-third of them are children.
One of the (clearly many) things about my current job that I actually have liked and will miss is the tangible connection it has given me in doing a (very) small thing for some children from (very) low income households in my (very) economically stratified little city. The city I now work in, the city I lived in and went to school in for 10 years, the city that my father and grandfather were born in– is, in my estimation, a microcosm of the economic (and other) stratification of these United States. It is my experiences in this state, that have made me understand how urgent, pervasive, and society-killing poverty is. My job allowed me to care for and know families in significant poverty these past few years, and their friendship has meant a great deal. Getting to know them made poverty real to me, and it made it more urgent in my sense of priorities in evaluating political candidates. I was a big John Edwards supporter this past year and also in 2004, primarily because he spoke about poverty– well and often. I pray for more with national platforms on which to speak will follow his lead in speaking out and initiating action on this crisis.
There is a particular street on my ride into work every day I always cite when ranting and worrying about this topic. If you live on one side of Pathetic Street, your children will go to the best school system in the state. If you live on the other side of the street, your children will go to the most desperate mess of a school system I have ever had the pleasure of personally encountering. Driving along, it has been striking to many visiting friends of mine just how quickly the housing in that area goes from Exorbitant Sheik to Serious Ghetto. But for those of us who live here, it really isn’t something that is talked about. In this crazy state I live in, its normal to be on food stamps a block away from a mansion.
In my work as a drama teacher I have worked with students from urban, rural, and suburban areas and from every imaginable income level. In the wealthier districts I work I often find myself complaining about the parents. Stage Moms come out of the woodwork in wealthy schools when you announce you’re putting on a play. Fathers show up to build the set and help with the car wash fundraiser and the mothers squabble amongst themselves about perceived unfair distribution of costumes. Fights break out over which kid gets to wear the expensive lapel microphones. And lo, pity the poor volunteer who neglects to misspell something in the “Break a Leg!” section of the program. It is a generalization, but overall in most put-on-a-play experiences in those areas, parents seem to be breathing over my shoulder throughout the production process, sometimes to the point that I often wish they weren’t there at all. It’s different in the poorer areas that I work. In those areas most of the few parents I encounter are younger (sometimes significantly younger) than me. It always catches me off guard when I say I’m 30 and senior in high school tells me so is their mom. In these areas I have to beg for parents to come to performances. Attendance at rehearsals is often spotty– someone has been suspended, someone was kicked out of their house this week, someone’s grandmother’s car broke down. When I first started working with students facing this level of poverty, I was overwhelmed and depressed by the challenges of putting on a play with them. It felt futile, as Nijala Sun’s NO CHILD details better than I could. (P.S. If that show comes to your neighborhood I highly recommend it, it’s sort of my life onstage.) But then I started dealing with the grant paperwork that made those programs possible. I had to process the forms which detailed the number of members in my students’ households, as compared to the household’s annual income. Foundation reports would come out and I would see our little organization listed among housing projects, food banks, and literacy training, and it occurred to me– individually our work is at times microscopic in impact. But all of these nonprofits have come together, supported by funders and volunteers and sheer will, to save the lives of an entire community of young people.
I’m not making soup for these kids, or building houses for them– but I have felt a great deal of gratification in the past couple years being able to do this one small thing in their lives that would not be there otherwise. Grants allow programs like the one I work in to provide enrichment activities for kids whose schools “leave behind” children every day. It is not much, but it saves lives. I’m not a cook– as I often say, I not what you’d call ‘domestic’ so I barely manage to feed myself. There are other people who have found themselves called to feed the stomachs of the poor in their areas. I feel blessed that my time and talents have given me the honor of helping to feed some hungry children’s souls. I want to call out to the world– Feed them! And while, we’re at it, let’s feed the hearts of those children on the other side of the street, who’ve never had the gift of a friend who didn’t have a closet-full of toys, and who don’t know to find it odd that that quick Exorbitant Shiek to Serious Ghetto walk is anything other than as it should be.
Poverty should be a crime in a nation this wealthy, but I wonder if there is an even greater crime in the invisible separators amongst the classes, played out so absurdly in my particular state. It boggles my mind how deep we’re-not-having-food- this-weekend poverty can exist, literally, a stone’s throw from such intense wealth, and how the members of each can have so little contact with each other. As my former minister once said, the more time I spend with the poor, the more convinced I become that they have more to teach the rest of us than we to them. May we all have and seek access to their gifts, and may the gifts we share ourselves make a difference.
A family member of mine with whom I often argue about political matters told me once, “There will always be poor people.” Will there? Maybe. But does it have to be? Where is the morality in accepting that statement as a given? What have I done today to make a difference for those a stone’s throw from my door? What have you?