Poverty: A Discussion Among the Seven Sisters

For the latest in our "Women who are Changing the World and Rocking Their Fields Series," I choose to highlight the alumnae of the Seven Sisters Colleges. Women of Barnard, Bryn Mawr , Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe (now Harvard) Smith, Vassar and Wellesley converged this October at the Italian Center in Stamford, Connecticut. This is a highlight of what was discussed at the 30th Seven Sisters Colleges Annual Alumnae Seminar. The discussion, "Hope in Anxious Times: Exploring New Dimensions of Poverty in America."

"The average age of a homeless person in our country is nine years old," says Onleilove Alston of New York's Poverty Initiative. The Columbia University graduate student was born and raised in East New York, Brooklyn, one of the seven New York City communities that sends the highest percentages of residents to prison.

With the contracting economy, a record-breaking unemployment rate of 9.7%, the word poor is at the tip of our tongues, yet, how many of us know the truth of the plight faced by the families in our American backyards? According to the Census Bureau one in six or 47.4 million Americans are living in poverty. This is seven million more than the government's previous estimates, which did not factor in the rising costs in healthcare, childcare, transportation and costs of living based on regions.

"We can no longer sustain our current economic way of life," says Alston, a theology student and candidate for a masters in social work. This past spring, Lawrence Mishel, president, of the Economic Policy Institute put together a slideshow about the economic downturn. One slide simply reads, "An Escalating Downturn." For those in America who have only known poverty has this crisis been escalation or does it simply feel like stagnation?

The crisis is changing the way a portion of Americans view poverty, shedding light on what has previously been an isolated conversation.

"Just recall the presidential debates last fall between Barack Obama and John McCain, they were not asked a single question about poverty," says Dr. John O. Fox, an expert on United States tax policy at the conference. Many are left to wonder if the language of politics is based on the language of the Middle Class. Politicians in all levels of the government have been saying in elections around the country, "I'm here to fight for the Middle Class." "What about the millions of Americans who are not part of the Middle Class," Fox, a visiting professor at Mount Holyoke points out. The first step to understanding poverty is acknowledging the Lower Class.

"The reality is," says Dannel Malloy, Stamford's mayor, "We live in an America where poverty has been mostly ignored for most of the last nine years. We live in an America that has not minded, quite frankly, seeing poverty increase across our country ... We live in an America that has chosen to lower taxes on the very rich while [cutting] services, relatively across the board, to those who are least among us ... it's not been a very pretty America to live in."

Stamford, I would like to add is a city in Fairfield County, one of the richest counties in America.

Can we alleviate or ameliorate the situation for those who have always known poverty? For Dr. Shirley Johnson-Lans, Professor and Chair of the Economics Department at Vassar College, part of the answer lies with women. "Women are more vulnerable to poverty because they have the responsibility of raising children and [caring for] the elderly, which takes their time and reduces their earning capacity." What needs to occur, explains Johnson-Lans is the empowerment of women in America and the developing world.

To empower yourself and those around you, reader, I leave you with suggestions provided by Alston:

With the holidays approaching it is always helpful to donate to the local holiday toy and food drives.

If you teach at any level include books about the working poor or include the history of the poor people's campaign in your curriculum. Invite speakers from poverty organizations, or find a local community organization to volunteer with.

[Also] educate yourself about the current economic crisis.

I encourage you, reader, to find your own sustainable practices and ideas.