New and Sometimes Invisible
The Poor in America
The new poor. A year ago you had a full time job, you were able to pay your mortgage, buy groceries, and put gas in your car. Today you’re standing in a food line. How did this happen. How did you become poor? Read a personal story shared with Self-Development of People. This story comes from a Presbyterian pastor. Because it is so personal the writer prefers to remain anonymous.
Personal Story: Two years ago, I sat in a posh office of a major US city, engrossed in my work. When I wasn’t traveling around the country on business, I was conducting a street corner worship service for the homeless community downtown and serving fresh fruit and vitamin water to my brothers and sisters in Christ there.
Little did I know that two years later, on yesterday morning, I would be standing in line for free groceries at a community food pantry, because my saved resources were depleted from long-term unemployment.
I’m not the only one. My story is the story of countless Americans who once were well established in the Middle Class, but who are now struggling to afford their next meal. We have become The New Poor. This decline seems to have been silent and undetected, until it suddenly overtook us, like an unexpected snow. All at once, we were shivering from the chill of poverty, and did not know what to do, because this was new territory for us.
Yesterday, as I put my one bag of free groceries into my car, and started to crank up the engine, a woman, limping and leaning on a cane while dragging a suitcase packed with free groceries, motioned for me to roll down the car window. She asked me, “Do you have bus fare you can give me?”
I told her the truth, “I don’t have any money, but I will take you where you want to go.”
She said, “But I have to be able to get back home.”
I said, “If you’re not too long, I will wait for you and take you back home.”
She got into the car and put her suitcase in the back seat. Then, she began to tell me about all the food pantries in town and the kind of food that each one gives. She had lived in poverty for at least seven years, and had learned how to survive on only a tiny disability income. She knew all the ropes of the invisible world of desperate poverty. She knew which agencies offered what, on what days of the week and at what times.
I drove her to a charity center, following her directions, and decided to go in with her. I took my number and sat down among a large host of patient people who seemed used to waiting for hours to be seen. I listened to the conversation of two women across the room from each other. One was also talking on the phone with her children who were afraid at home alone, because they saw several policemen combing their neighborhood.
Their mother told them, “Oh, don’t worry about them. They’re looking for that man that killed his ex-girlfriend and the man that she had gone out with. The police will stay around the neighborhood until they find him.” She said this in such a matter-of-fact way, as if it was so commonplace that there was no need for concern.
A man in the waiting room said, “I heard about that on the news. The woman was his baby’s Mamma, and he didn’t want her to go out with another man, so he killed both of them.”
The young woman on the other side of the room spoke up and said, “Yea, that was my brother he killed.”
Another woman asked, “How old was he?”
The sister of the deceased answered, “Thirty-six.” She spoke with an expressionless face, void of all emotion and with no trace of grief or sadness. She spoke as if she had experienced the death of a loved one many times before, and this was just another time.
How can this become a beloved community? How distant it seemed to be from compassionate justice, yet, the people in the room all seemed like a close-knit family -- sharing dark secrets and freely relating to each other with such ease. It was a paradox.
Yet, we all sat there together, patiently waiting for free groceries. I had forgotten just how wretched a life poverty can create for a person. It’s like sliding backward. You don’t really see what you are becoming, because you think you are still the person you were.
These people needed much more than physical food. They needed the refreshment of the Holy Spirit, a time of refreshing and renewal. A re-set -- back to the basics of life as God first intended it to be.
For me, this experience will probably be a temporary one, because I will eventually find employment and return to at least some semblance of the Middle Class. But for most of my new friends with whom I had fellowship on yesterday, they will continue to wait for food, caught in the vicious cycle of poverty and hunger.
When Jesus commanded Peter to feed his sheep, could it be that Jesus recognized the extent of our great need for spiritual sustenance, economic justice, and benevolent compassion in addition to physical nourishment?
There are organizations that have a vision for a way toward realizing a more just economic system, with fair wages and sustainable careers. But, it will take a movement of compassionate justice to convince our lawmakers to actually pass the kind of legislation that will correct current inequities in our educational system, our judicial system, and our labor market that keep poor people in poverty and promote the gains of the wealthy.
We feed our brothers and sisters by being advocates for a just economy -- from the banking system to the minimum wage. If the church does not spearhead such a movement, how can we expect the secular community, plagued by a culture of greed, to do anything at all?
This is just one story.
According to the U.S. Census in 2011
- 46.2 million Americans live in poverty
- 16.1 million children under the age of 18 are in in poverty
- 3.6 million seniors 65 and older are in poverty
Unemployment in America is at 12.2 million. Long term unemployed (jobless 27 weeks or more) stands at 4.8 million Americans. Thirty million Americans are underemployed (jobless or able to find only part time work). US Bureau of Labor Statistics
In 2011 636,017 Americans were homeless. The “doubled-up” population (people living with families and/or friends) in 2010 was 6.8 million. In December of 2011 nearly one in seven homeless adults was a veteran. It is estimated that 1.5 million veterans are at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.
Homelessness is usually associated with urban life, but there are many homeless people in rural areas. The causes of homelessness are not unique to cities. They spread across the nation and affect everyone. There are many other causes including lack of affordable housing, inability to find stable employment that pays a living wage, large medical bills, domestic violence, mental illness, and addiction disorders to name a few.
At its January meeting in Tampa, Florida members of National Committee on the Self-Development of People in addition to meeting the writer of the first story had the pleasure of meeting Jerry, Jeffrey, Mike and Janet from Homeless Solutions. All are homeless or formerly homeless. They say they are the invisible poor. People walk over them, around them, stare straight through them. For many, they do not exist. Yet they do exist. Every day they are working to improve their financial situation and ultimately their housing situation. They struggle every day for sufficient food, they struggle just to survive. With the help of Peace Memorial Presbyterian Church they are organizing to be advocates for homeless people. They are coming together to give voice to the needs, rights and abilities of homeless citizens. To address the lack of income they are opening a thrift store. So that as Mike says “sleeping under the stars every night has become a way of life” will no longer be their reality.
Because of your generosity they have hope. They see their dreams becoming reality. Your giving to the One Great Hour of Sharing enables Self-Development of People to partner with Jerry, Jeffrey, Mike and Janet in their quest for human dignity.
Over the years your generous giving to the OGHS, through the Self-Development of People ministry, has helped:
- Low income tenants in Wethersfield, CT through the Public Housing Leadership Initiative preserve and improve their public (affordable) housing; residents in the Community Alliance of Tenants in Portland, OR confront unjust housing policies particularly as they relate to people of color and people with disabilities
- Assisted veterans in meeting their spiritual, social, and economic/housing needs as they seek affordable housing and employment through the United Men in Recovery Project; enabled senior citizens on the lower east side of New York City to strategically organize around the issues of affordable housing and economic justice for public housing residents in the Good Old Lower East Side project
- Enabled women in abusive situation to help themselves by working to improve the systems of response, protection and support for victims and survivors of domestic violence; given men in the Joe’s Ladder project a chance to turn around their lives through literacy, education, and mentoring.
From dream to reality-- that is what your giving to the One Great Hour of Sharing makes possible.