“There is no excuse for living in poverty in this great country other than refusing an education, making poor decisions.” If we’re ever to move past this divisive point in time, it’s critical to engage in discussion, especially with those far from us on the ideological spectrum. I had been discussing poverty with a man for several minutes before he stated the quote above. One in every eight Americans live under the poverty line, and I would wager that at least four of the remaining don’t understand it. Poverty has become so normalized and ingrained in our culture, many individuals only recognize it in its most extreme cases, such as someone living on the street. But one can still be torn apart by poverty even with a roof over their head.
In our country, laws - hopefully - represent the will of the majority. So, if many people do not understand this pervasive issue, it’s not only unfortunate, but dangerous! I’m not saying people lacking intimate knowledge of poverty are bad, but I am pleading for them to re-examine the lens with which they view this important issue and the complex fabric of circumstances keeping it in place. If you have been lucky enough to be untouched by poverty, that is beautiful. However, one should not have to experience something in order to have empathy for those affected by it. Despite anecdotal tales of “Welfare Queens,” which have been disproved many times, no one chooses to live under the poverty line. It can be a sad, scary, and lonely place. Often leaving you with a frequent, punched-in-the-gut, kind of feeling. To say nothing of the constant stress and heightened sense of fear.
I’ll never forget the first time I found myself surrounded by medical bills I couldn’t pay. One minute I was a fairly happy early 20-something just trying to make my way in the world. The next, I was no longer sure how I’d pay rent, and stopped taking prescriptions or going to the doctor because I could no longer afford to. Research shows living in poverty changes your brain and I can attest to that. A decade later, now a financially secure adult, and I still wince in fear every time a medical bill comes in the mail. Although I lived under the poverty line through much of my 20s, I always knew I had family members who loved me and would never let me be homeless. Far too many individuals in our country do not have that luxury.
Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I’ll be spending it as I do many days, fighting to eradicate poverty. Those of you enjoying a long weekend off work, or simply posting a picture of Dr. King on Facebook, I urge you to spend some time thinking about the man we’re celebrating. 50 years ago, Dr. King began a “Poor People’s Campaign.” When referring to the Declaration of Independence, he said, “if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.” In this political climate, it’s more important than ever that we give people everything they need to lift themselves out of poverty, and make sure there are safety nets in place to catch all of us when we fall. Dr. King thought poverty was important enough to dedicate the last year of his life to. Please honor his memory by considering how you might be able to help his cause that is still very much alive today.
Resources to learn more about poverty:
- “Fast Food, Poverty Wages: The Public Cost of Low-Wage Jobs in the Fast-Food Industry” - a report from UC Berkley’s Labor Center - http://laborcenter.berkeley.edu/fast-food-poverty-wages-the-public-cost-of-low-wage-jobs-in-the-fast-food-industry/
- “20/20 Diane Sawyer” - A short doc, re: Modern Poverty in America - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hhh0Qcl_yMA
- “Poverty Rates, Demographics, and Economic Freedom Across America” - a scholarly journal article - https://www.texaspolicy.com/library/doclib/2017-08-RR-PovertyRatesAmerica-CEF-CourtneyCollins.pdf
- “Poverty in America: Why Can’t We End It?” - a New York Times Op-Ed - http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/29/opinion/sunday/why-cant-we-end-poverty-in-america.html
- “Why Does the Minimum Wage Have No Discernible Effect on Employment?” - a scholarly journal article about minimum wage (including support for why the economy would not suffer from a minimum wage increase) - http://cepr.net/documents/publications/min-wage-2013-02.pdf
- Results of a University of Chicago survey to economists about the minimum wage (spoiler alert: most support it!) - http://www.igmchicago.org/surveys/minimum-wage
- The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities - Impact of Working-Family Tax Credits - https://www.cbpp.org/blog/new-poverty-figures-show-impact-of-working-family-tax-credits
Resources to take action:
- RESULTS - http://www.results.org/
- Oxfam America - https://www.oxfamamerica.org/take-action/
- The Borgen Project - https://borgenproject.org/get-involved-in-the-cause/
- Coalition on Human Needs - https://www.chn.org/take-action/action-alerts/
- Homes for the Homeless - http://www.hfhnyc.org/get-involved/volunteer/
- National Fuel Funds - http://nationalfuelfunds.org/advocacy/
- Caring Across - hhttps://caringacross.org/take-action/