Thursday, May 3, 2007

94. Ending poverty the right thing to do

Americans benefit from great wealth. In fact, the United States is among the wealthiest countries in the world. Most of us enjoy a plethora of national resources, such as education, infrastructure and the widespread availability of food and fresh water. Beyond the necessities, a majority of the population enjoys a middle class life, complete with homes, cars and other luxuries. And of course, a small percentage of Americans enjoy great wealth, the life of privilege and excesses. There is, however, another, often forgotten about, silent class of Americans- the poor.

Their silence is two-fold. They do not have financial or political power, which directly affects their ability to be a social consideration. They neither have the ability to financially entice politicians; nor do they vote with consistent regularity. Secondly, their interest, rightfully, is self-centered. It is difficult to allocate precious time and resources to social standing and influences when one is concerned with putting food on the table. It is Maslow's hierarchy of needs psychologically and socially exemplified.

Thus the responsibility of their representation belongs to others, those that might be able to offer the financial and social influence to make a difference. The quandary presented, however, is that those people that are financially secure more often than not lack the experience of being poor. A lot of people think they are poor, or perhaps believe that they have experienced difficult times in the past. But few people really understand what it means to live in poverty. This lack of perspective makes it difficult to fairly represent the reality endured by the unfortunate.

To offer a brief microcosm of what it is like to live in poverty, Leadership Lorain County hosted a Community Action Poverty Simulation. I was privileged to participate in the simulation; to experience the hassle and challenges of being poor. James E. Gepperth, of the Catholic Charities Family Center of Lorain, introduced the program, and made an important point- there is no "system" in place for the poor. There are a number of, often unconnected, places of public and non-for-profit assistance - but no single agency that can act a single resource for support.

Participants were divided into families and guided to work through real life situations. Each family worked through their circumstances which included challenges such as unemployment, caring for grandchildren, and foreclosure - all while attempting to work through the "system." The simplest task was often time-consuming; the day itself was mentally and physically exhausting. While mindful that this was just a simulation, the experience nonetheless offered a small perspective into the lives of millions of people. Reflection offered an increased understanding of poverty, and a greater appreciation for personal good fortune. Although I personally suffered a job loss in 2001, I lacked insight into what it really meant to struggle. Now, more than ever, I am thankful every morning I awake with an agenda that includes going to work.

Information supplied at the poverty simulation defined two types of poverty- generational and situational - based on an article written by Kerry McCormick of West Virginia University from "A Framework for Understanding Poverty," by Dr. Payne. The distinction is rather self-evident, though the impact differs. The generationally poor are defined as two or more generations living in poverty; whereas, situational poverty is a result of a change in circumstances. The generationally poor survive as a matter of culture - the result of a "much lower level of educational attainment." Their coping skills are, interestingly, better than those thrust into poverty as a result of a job loss or divorce.

I did not lead with the poverty statistics, because it is the lives behind the numbers that matter. However, the numbers also paint a bleak picture. Lorain County, with the loss of its manufacturing employment (20 percent between the second quarter of 2000 and second quarter of 2005 (Center for Learning, Oberlin College)) has been especially vulnerable - which has translated, along predatory lending, into record numbers of foreclosures. In addition, there seems to be an educational correlation, as Lorain County has consistently had fewer college graduates compared to numbers across the state. Furthermore, according to 2000 U.S. Census figures, 1 in 4 in the city of Lorain and 1 in 5 in Elyria do not finish high school.

Lorain County is particularly difficult on minorities with 34 percent of African-Americans and 28 percent of Hispanics living in poverty. It is not surprising that poverty is highest among female-headed households. In 2003, there were 10,463 Lorain County children living in poverty. For these families, the emphasis is on putting food on the table, not saving money to send their children to Harvard.

Poverty is a community issue, one that needs to be addressed by its leadership. This first step is erasing the stigma attached; most specifically that poverty is a choice. The attitude is often that the poor do not work hard, that they would rather work the "system." The second step is a movement toward creating opportunity, and it needs to be created whether or not it comes with campaign contributions or election votes. Rather it needs to be created because it is the right thing to do.