The thing about poverty is that it actually does discriminate. "They"' will tell you it doesn't, but you and I both know that it does. Poverty seems to take an interest in certain races and ethnicities, certain sexualities, and people with a certain degree of education. Poverty more often than not informs our next steps, end goals, and the quality of our outcomes in life more than we care to admit.
Poverty isn't just about wealth. You can be emotionally and spiritually poor. You can have poor health. To say that someone just wasn't trying hard enough not to be impoverished in any of these ways, to me, sounds like either people are in denial or that they just don't "get it".
Let's start with the basics. If I can't eat food that will sustain me...if there are no grocery stores for miles and all I've got is a corner store and 3 fast food restaurants down the block...how can I be healthy? If I don't have health, how can I function? How can I not go into debt? If the schools close to me are understaffed and lacking in quality, how can I compete with people seeking the same employment who did get a quality education? And if I've got to work 3 jobs to barely survive- is that sustainable for me, my family, or my community?
Now let's add race into the mix. It's no coincidence that though there are less black and brown folks in this nation (this is rapidly changing!) that a larger percentage of black and brown folks live in poverty. This has nothing to do with boot straps and everything to do with structures, institutions and systems that are discriminatory... yes, racist. They'll say that there are laws against this and that everyone is color-blind and this is a post-racial society but you and I both know the reality. No amount of repeating these blatant lies are going to make them true...so why do black and brown folks keep on trying to buy into this? Why do they hold on to the hopes that they will hold "equal" power (through assimilation) instead of deconstructing these systems and holding on to their cultures, dignity, and integrity? Maybe it's internalized racism...maybe it's delusion. Maybe we're just tired of struggling. Our generation sure is tired. Our ancestors sure didn't have that luxury.
How about sexuality? The LGB, and more disproportionately T, community is more likely to be in poverty. They face employment discrimination and higher rates of unemployment, higher rates of homelessness, more discrimination in health care settings. And though added visibility and the past few decades is bringing about change, it's not fast enough. The violence the LGBT community meets with on a daily basis is terrifying. And being a queer person of color makes you even more vulnerable. You encounter more police brutality, more violence from peers and the community, and more discrimination at work and at clinics and hospitals.
In this nation...the issue is that poverty is seen as a character flaw. The impoverished brought it on themselves or they may even be seen as lacking in values or morals. Or maybe God is punishing them because in America, anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and be rich. Everyone has opportunities. Yet...poverty is best defined as the lack of opportunities to improve one's situation. Hmm...No one wants to believe that they can't improve your situation or that they don't have opportunities. Better yet, the same opportunities as others. That's valid. But we have to open our eyes and see the reality. There are a lot of people who are struggling to survive. There are a lot of people in a cycle of generational (not situational) poverty. Sometimes it's hard to relate to what it feels like to not have your basic needs met when you've never been in that situation. This makes it easier to be detached and blame those who aren't meeting their needs.
But everyone can experience poverty. It's even more of a reality these days. Unfortunately that seems to be where the starting point is for building across differences in race/ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. Would you rather struggle alone or pull together to start a community garden, to help start a community clinic, or to improve the schools in your district? Some in this country would like us to believe that we can just turn our head and not be affected by the suffering of others. Here are some examples of the falsity of that...the rich are affected by the number of poor folks on public assistance. Companies are affected by less people being able to buy their products and services. Hospitals are affected by more emergency visits due to less people having health care insurance. If there are lower literacy rates and more people dropping out of school, there are higher crime rates which affect just about everyone. Gentrification will eventually displace more than just the lower class.
This lack of foresight will destroy (is destroying) this country.
I'm in my second term at a "national community service" organization that shall remain unnamed til I finish out my term. In this program, you live at poverty level and serve at organizations committed to helping those in low income communities. I'm just going to say this- there aren't a lot of black and brown folks. And a lot of them come from a privileged background. I'm fairly sure this program was designed for those who are upper middle class or upper class. It's a slap of reality that may or may not work depending on who you speak to. It's not for those who have poor health or who are already struggling and in poverty. It's for those with "cushions" and trust funds. Fair enough. Let them tough it out so they can "relate." But do they truly "get it"? Do they really get a glimpse of reality or are some just "slummin' it" and then moving on? Are they really more able to see our humanity? Who knows. All I know is that this program has been around for decades and it has had millions of volunteers willing to live a year or 2 in poverty. Maybe it's a start. Maybe it's not.
The things is...you can't just "try on" poverty. Sometimes it seeps into your bones...your DNA. Your spirit. It can even take your life. Most of the people I know are struggling. Struggling to hold on to housing or a job. Struggling to keep, keepin' on in this world in a system that simply is not sustainable.
So - do we just stick to our corner and refuse to help others. Do we perpetuate a poverty consciousness, believing that we can't possibly give when we have so little? Do we stay distracted by chasing paper and buying into an American nightmare that we can't wake up from?
What would our ancestors have done?
Hoarding isn't a solution to poverty. Hiding your head in the sand isn't a solution either. We need to address this from many sides (and simultaneously). And, it's not just about compassion and caring for others anymore or doing the right thing. We won't survive if we don't all get involved in this. It is so crucial that we continue to create our own solutions and support each other and learn from each other along the way. The government is slashing spending on health and human services. We can't depend on it so we might as well start to learn how to depend on each other.
Instead of complaining or feeling defeated, let's come up with some solutions for our communities...do you have some? I bet you've thought about this...leave some comments. Let's have some dialogue. Or maybe you can find a friend, colleague or community member to discuss solutions with. However the conversation gets had.