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Posts Tagged ‘the poor’

What do we owe one another?

In aging, behavior, culture, domestic life, family, Money, news, politics, religion, urban life, US on November 19, 2012 at 3:28 am
Donations

Donations (Photo credit: Matthew Burpee)

In 1984, Canadian writer, academic — and later politician — Michael Ignatieff wrote a book, “The Needs of Strangers”. In it, he says:

“A decent and humane society requires a shared language of the good. The one our society lives by — a language of rights — has no terms for those dimensions of the human good which require acts of virture unspecifiable as a legal or civil obligation.”

In the United States, those who give money to charity, it turns out, are least likely to give it to those most in financial need, writes columnist Eduardo Porter in The New York Times:

Religious organizations receive about one-third of the nation’s total charitable contributions, not including donations to religious hospitals, schools and social charities. Donations to human services charities, by contrast, which work to ease poverty, feed the hungry and the like, amount to less than 12 percent of the total.

It’s a question I ask myself frequently – what, if anything beyond our taxes, do we owe to others in our world, whether that’s in our town, county, province/state, country, hemisphere?

Others’ needs for help are boundless and our individual resources with which to alleviate them — unless we are very wealthy or have no need, ourselves, to earn a living — extremely limited.

In the same edition of the Times containing Porter’s column is the full-page ad announcement of a multi-million gift to a college, bearing, of course, the generous donor’s name.

Asks Porter:

As the government grapples with how to address the nation’s deficits over coming decades, Americans have an opportunity to reassess the role of philanthropy in addressing the nation’s problems. Should we continue to provide lavish tax breaks? Should we demand that in return for preferential tax treatment, programs target more clearly the needs of the poor?

Many Americans might think that keeping tax breaks for donations to build, say, a new university football stadium when so many poor students can barely afford college, is not the best way to spend scarce resources.

Those on the right end of the political spectrum scoff at the notion of handing money to the poor and indigent, arguing that it merely enables them to continue their shiftless, lazy behaviors. Those on the left feel it’s immoral to let needy people starve, suffer and die from restricted or non-existent access to the basics of human dignity: food, shelter, medical care.

Last week my church, a small Episcopal parish in a wealthy town north of New York City, held its annual clothing sale, in which we donate our own clothes and shoes, for adults and children, sell them for low prices, then distribute the money earned to local charities. I worked a few days at the sale, and a few people asked when prices would drop to half-off, when they could better afford a wool hat at $2.50 instead of $5, or a pair of leather shoes for $7 instead of $14.

We raised more than $50,000, far more than if we’d been asked to open our wallets individually.

It’s humbling and sobering to see what sale shoppers need and can afford, and somehow ironic that the sale depends on volunteer labor — all the stay-at-home mothers with high-earning husbands flee at 2pm to pick up their children — and the only people who can offer their time are retired, unemployed or, in my case, who work freelance and may have a flexible schedule.

Those who came to shop included parents buying children’s clothes, teens snapping up fun stuff and a nun in her habit who, after I folded and bagged her sweater, asked with a smile: “Do you do closets?”

For many of us, the world has become a place where we rarely encounter, touch or speak to people whose lives are circumstances are unlike our own, whether richer or poorer. We attend different schools and colleges — if at all — travel by different conveyances, shop in different stores.

The clothing sale brings us together in a week-long fellowship. Like many people in this economy, I’m liquidity-poor, but time-rich.

I also serve on the board of a 30-year-old volunteer group that offers aid to non-fiction writers who have hit a financial crisis. We can mail a check for up to $4,000 within a week of getting an application. Usually, they have suffered the “triple whammy” — they’ve lost work, lost their health and lost the financial support of a spouse or partner.

Every letter we receive is a “there but for the grace of God” experience.

If I didn’t have a generous, loving husband with a steady job and excellent health insurance — which so many people do not — I might be writing one of those letters myself.

Few of us will escape our lives financially unscathed, without a crisis in which we desperately and suddenly need help from people who do not know, or owe, us — a dying parent, an ill child, a lost job (or several), a hurricane or flood — or both.

Poverty, misery and physical devastation are frightening. They smell bad. Storm-ravaged houses, crying children, old people huddled around a trash can fire. No one wants to be that person.

It’s easier to pretend they don’t exist than meet them face to face, seeing in their weary eyes and lined faces the existential terror that, one day, might be ours.

Blaming the poor and indigent is an easy out. There are few quick, simple solutions, as the miserable and angry survivors of Hurricane Sandy are still learning.

What do you think we owe one another?

Are taxes the only way to re-distribute funds from the better-off?

Do you do volunteer work and/or give money to charity?

Hating the poor will not make you rich

In behavior, culture, life, Money, news, parenting, politics, religion, urban life, US on November 9, 2012 at 2:20 pm
Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

Stained glass at St John the Baptist’s Anglican Church http://www.stjohnsashfield.org.au, Ashfield, New South Wales. Illustrates Jesus’ description of himself “I am the Good Shepherd” (from the Gospel of John, chapter 10, verse 11). This version of the image shows the detail of his face. The memorial window is also captioned: “To the Glory of God and in Loving Memory of William Wright. Died 6th November, 1932. Aged 70 Yrs.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are several strains in the American worldview I find, even after 24 years living here, confusing and wearying.

There is the persistent narrative that government is bad, that self-reliance is good and that no one who needs government help — other than victims of natural disasters — really deserves it. If they were just smarter/harder-working/thriftier/better educated, they’d be fine.

The self-righteousness is pervasive and ugly.

I get it. My first book, which looked at guns in American women’s lives, included interviews with many women who own guns, some of which they use for hunting, for sport and for self-protection. In speaking with 104 men, women and teens of every income level from 29 states, I came away with a much clearer understanding why 45 percent (then “only” 30 percent) of American homes contain a firearm.

This is a nation predicated on the belief that everyone is responsible for themselves.

This is, (and this is the confusing bit), also one of the most overtly religious nations on earth — the percentage of those “churched” is much higher than England or my native Canada. This is a nation where some people proudly, loudly and routinely boast that they are God-fearing Christians, while sneering at the poor and weak, something Christ would have difficulty with.

Here’s an interesting link discussing seven current trends in American church-going.

I’ve seen extreme wealth and extreme poverty here.

Yet, in today’s deeply divided nation, as Romney and his supporters lick their wounds and Obama and his staff prepare for his second term, the rich rarely — if ever — encounter the poor. They remain some weird, distant abstraction, nothing they or their children will ever encounter or experience.

Until its fury erupts within their circle, like the New York City nanny who recently slit the throats of two of the three children she was caring for, commuting from her difficult life in the Bronx. She was, she told police, tired of being told what to do and wanted to earn more money.

The middle class, however you define it, is terrified of falling into poverty. It’s so much easier to hate the poor and struggling than face the reality you are them or soon to be.

The middle class has been told, from birth, that if you just work really hard and go to college and get a degree, and then get another, and maybe another, you too can become wealthy. For some, yes. For many others, who can’t even find any job right now, that ever-receding horizon is starting to look unattainable.

So much easier to look down in terror and disdain than cease gazing up at the private-jet set with awe and envy.

I recently watched a new documentary, “Set For Life” that’s making the rounds of film festivals in the U.S., about workers over the age of 50 out of work, and the struggles they face in this recession. It is sobering, and depressing, made by a recent Columbia University grad named Susan Sipprelle.

I have mixed feelings about this intractable divide, one that is only growing.

I was a Big Sister in the late 90s for 18 months, mentoring a 13-year-old girl living a 10-minute drive east of me in my suburban New York county. I had never, in the U.S., confronted poverty firsthand or known someone personally in its grip.

My time with C was instructive, and ultimately left me less reflexively liberal. I liked her, and admired her grit and humor. She was fun and a loving, affectionate girl. But her family’s behaviors, attitudes and expectations — even with four tax-payer supported workers helping them — horrified me and I struggled to make sense of them. Her mother had simply disappeared for five years, and showed up a week after C and I were matched. I’d feed C fresh vegetables at my apartment, or take her to the library, while her mother — a decade younger than I — watched TV in the basement night and day.

I tried, writing a five-page single-space letter pleading her case, to get C a scholarship to a local private school, where if she boarded, would have offered her a respite from the shouting, filth, junk food and three-generation welfare dependency of her family.

She never showed up for her tryout day at school. I never heard from her, her family or Big Sisters again. I still wonder how she is doing.

In my retail job, I served some of the nation’s wealthiest men and women, in their triple-ply cashmere and five-carat diamond rings. The one word they never hear, the one that makes them recoil in shock and disbelief? “No.” It took me a while to realize that money buys you a lot of agreement: your nanny/au pair/personal trainer/driver/SAT tutor/assistant(s)/maids/staff/employees are unlikely to ever argue with you or deny you your every whim.

Their world is a shiny, pretty, insular one, where material success safely brands you as a winner, a member of the tribe.

They often spoke to us low-wage, part-time, no-benefit hourly workers slowly in words of one syllable. They leaned over the counter as we entered their addresses, certain we couldn’t possibly know how to spell. One man (not in our store) threw a quarter behind him as he left, sneering: “Go to college!”

Everyone in our staff of 15 had. Two were military veterans.

Several different Americas went into the voting booth this week, their mutual incomprehension unmitigated by billions of dollars spent on attack ads, “informed” by Fox News or NPR, but rarely both.

The side that lost is apoplectic, crying foul, red-faced with rage. Romney cut off his workers’ credit cards immediately.

Obama, speaking to his campaign workers, wept openly with pride and gratitude.

Income Inequality Runs Rampant

In behavior, business, cities, History, journalism, life, Money, news, urban life, US, work on July 13, 2011 at 12:49 pm
Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother," a...

Image via Wikipedia

Americans — with 9.2 percent unemployment rate, bankers raking in billions, corporate profits at record highs and hiring stagnant — should by now be actively, visible and collectively furious.

(Watch the Greeks.)

Yet, as the pols drone on and on and on with their debt ceiling drama — “We won’t tax job-creators” — millions remain screwed, scared, broke and disconnected from the larger polity in any meaningful way.

NBC Nightly News just spent three consecutive evenings addressing the death of Betty Ford and two yammering about the closing of a major L.A. freeway.

The unemployed? The people who can’t even get an interview?

Yawn.

The New York Times addressed it this week:

The United States is in the grips of its gravest jobs crisis since Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House. Lose your job, and it will take roughly nine months to find a new one. That is off the charts. Many Americans have simply given up.

But unless you’re one of those unhappy 14 million, you might not even notice the problem. The budget deficit, not jobs, has been dominating the conversation in Washington. Unlike the hard-pressed in, say, Greece or Spain, the jobless in America seem, well, subdued. The old fire has gone out.

In some ways, this boils down to math, both economic and political. Yes, 9.2 percent of the American work force is unemployed — but 90.8 percent of it is working. To elected officials, the unemployed are a relatively small constituency. And with apologies to Karl Marx, the workers of the world, particularly the unemployed, are also no longer uniting.

Nor are they voting — or at least not as much as people with jobs. In 2010, some 46 percent of working Americans who were eligible to vote did so, compared with 35 percent of the unemployed…

New York magazine, hardly a bastion of social justice, just ran a compelling little story as well, comparing Manhattan’s poorest district with its richest, which — of course! — sit side by side. One family spent $2,200 in a week (!?) and another scraped by on $500. Fascinating, scary, sad.

I’ve been reading, finally, a Christmas gift, a collection of Jan Morris’ travel writing from 1950 to 2000.

On her visit to Manhattan, she wrote:

America is the land acquisitive, and few Americans abandon the search for wealth or lose their admiration for those who find it. Unassimilated New Yorkers, the millions of un-Americans in this city, no matter how poor or desolate they seem, however disappointed in their dreams, still loyally respect the American idea — the chance for every man to achieve opulence….It is sometimes difficult to keep one’s social conscience in order among the discrepancies of Manhattan. The gulf between rich and poor is so particularly poignant in this capital of opportunity….there is something distasteful about a pleasure-drome so firmly based on personal advantage…you may as well admit that the whole place is built on greed.

This, she wrote in the the early 1950s.

Will it ever change?

How, if at all, does this issue affect your life?

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