This ran as a guest editorial by me in the Greenville News on Sunday, December 14, 2014.
I have worked in the poverty field for more than thirty years. I am passionate about all kinds of things that could help people who live in poverty. I advocate for affordable and available housing, especially for people who cannot sign a long term lease because of credit issues, criminal backgrounds, unsteady income, or physical or mental problems. I speak out about the myths and prejudices that people who have resources hold about poverty. I have worked to help people with financial crises, those who lacked employment skills and education, and homeless people. I speak out about the lack of adequate transportation, available healthcare, supportive and affordable childcare, and living wages. I facilitate poverty simulations, lead poverty tours of blighted neighborhoods, write books about poverty, and teach workshops to all kinds of people.
Nevertheless, I sometimes wish I didn’t know anything about poverty. I really like the beautiful downtown of Greenville. I like not having to interact with people asking for money when I’m out simply to relax and have a pleasant time in my hometown. I like it when dilapidated housing is torn down because it is an eyesore. I like finding affordable childcare. I enjoy being waited on by caring and professional servers at restaurants. I enjoy the benefits of education, white skin, and relative financial security. I like my life and I’d rather not see poverty or be impacted by the realities of poverty in our community. I want to live in a beautiful area without seeing anything ugly. I like the fact that much of the poverty in Greenville is hidden.
And this is the dilemma! I want my life without having to be aware of anyone else’s needs in our community. I want to wear blinders so I don’t have to see struggle, hurt, fear, poverty, disease, and lack of vision. I want to live in a bubble. I do not want to feel any responsibility for the fact that some in our community are not able to enjoy what I enjoy. I want government and grant dollars to go for things that benefit me and mine. I don’t want those same dollars to go to build housing for people who need very low cost housing partnered with supportive services. I want my neighborhood to be unaffected by trash dumps, inadequate public amenities, and housing for those who are not “like me.” I want to be able to walk the trails in our area without worrying about seeing the obvious realities of people who live in tents or outdoors. And just occasionally I agree with the dogmatists who proclaim that poverty is the poor person’s fault. Casting blame is so much easier that assuming some responsibility for poverty’s persistence.
The dilemma gets more intense when I think about the long term realities of my “blinders.” If everyone in our community does not receive a first rate education, then who is going to take care of me and mine in the coming decades? If we don’t provide first rate, affordable and available healthcare for everyone in our community, who is going to be healthy enough to take care of me and mine when I need it? If we do not have appropriate safe and affordable housing for everyone with an inexpensive way to get to work, who is going to serve me at restaurants, clean the public facilities I use, and maintain the parks and paths that I enjoy? If we continue to tear down blighted neighborhoods without one-to-one replacement of the units that are torn down, then are we deciding that we want more homelessness in our community? If we don’t have a strong, functioning, affordable and flexible transportation system, then how am I going to be able to get around when I can no longer drive?
If we don’t create a community where all of us can thrive, which of us will eventually succumb to being in the “loser” category rather than the “winner” category? If our community and each of us individually do not open our hearts, minds, and monetary priorities to include people who currently live in poverty, then what will our future look like? Will we still enjoy our lives here?
This is the dilemma: we do not want poverty in our community because it makes us uncomfortable, it challenges those of faith about how faithful we are being, and it is simply ugly. And yet, we do not want to do what it takes to eliminate poverty because that’s just messy and may change us somehow!