Let’s talk about economic justice

Yesterday was a big day here in the United States as we officially welcomed Barack Obama into a second term as commander in chief of this great though fractured nation. It was also Martin Luther King Jr. Day also known as MLK Day. A day where we pay homage to the memory of a great man and over the years we have made it a day on and not a day off by being of service to the less fortunate among us. I have a few thoughts about that…so grab a drink, sit back and relax, while I babble.

My father grew up in the rural south as the son of sharecroppers; I have grown up hearing the tales of what life was like in the cotton patch. My father went to segregated schools, drank from the Blacks only water fountain and was almost a teenager before his folks had indoor plumbing. When you consider that my father is just turning 60, that is absolutely mind-blowing to me. It also means that he was alive and old enough to recall what the living Martin Luther King Jr. was about and while the focus in modern times is on the “I have a Dream” speech and racial equality, the truth is that was only part of King’s overall vision of justice.

Towards the end of King’s life he started working more and more for economic justice, King’s last book was Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community and one of the major ideas he espoused was the idea that everyone should have what they need to live. Think on that for a moment. In fact at the time of his assassination, King was working to organize the Poor People’s Campaign.  I won’t bore you with the details, but needless to say, I think there is a reason that King’s legacy has been boiled down to service to others and racial equality. Make no mistake, these things are very important but without recognizing how insidious economic inequality is and working to level the economic playing field, injustice still exists on a mass scale. Sure, we now have a Black president but Black unemployment rates are astronomical. We have allowed a few people of difference access to the gains that allow us to feel good and pat ourselves on the back and think “gee, the world is better” but is it really? I am not so sure that it is.

An uneven economic playing field means that some of us will have all the tools we need to live fully rounded and fulfilled lives whereas the rest of us are limited in reaching our potential. For some of us the struggle just to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table will consume all our waking hours, for others the despair that comes from crushing debt will keep us from actualizing our dreams and hopes as we are tethered to jobs we don’t like because we see no other way out. Though we will pacify ourselves with the thought that it could be worse, after all we do have a house, food, etc. Never mind that the cost to our souls and psyches is staggering.

Oddly enough it was the realization this morning that all forms of self-improvement are out of reach for many and that for so many in this country, they can only dream of a better life with no hope of making it a reality. We have told so many that a college education is the key to a better life, that schools using free market principles are out of reach or create crushing debt so that this so-called better life isn’t a dream but a nightmare.

In the past several years as I have embarked on my own personal campaign to create a better me, I have been stunned at how much the tools cost to create that better life can be. A much needed retreat equals hundreds of dollars. Conferences that might allow me the networking opportunities I need to grow my writing into something more, also hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Sure, I am not starving and these things are not true necessities and while I am more than aware of that fact and thankful for all that I have especially when my daily work reminds me that so many have it much worse, it doesn’t take away from the fact that an uneven playing field is limiting to all of us.

Granted, we are in so deep in this culture that realistically I don’t know if true economic justice is even possible. However on the eve of my birthday, one of the few constants in my being is that I believe change and dreams are necessary. I want to believe that a world can exist where people are capable of more than just living but thriving and reaching their full potential. Where access for those who want more is not limited by their lack of financial resources, crazy? I admit though that closer to home; I am heartened by groups such as Justice in the Body in Portland, Maine where their mission is “Justice in the Body is a socially responsible education, training and movement center devoted to integrating well-being, love, justice and liberation with individuals, groups and social movements.”  They do this by offering yoga and related classes all for $5. As anyone who has ever attempted to practice yoga knows, class costs are often a barrier for many, so even seemingly baby steps within a community such as $5 classes have the ability to plant the seeds for change. This is the type of change I would like to see on a larger scale, more access with the so-called small things might lead us to larger systemic changes.

PS: It seems today marks 5 years of blogging; my first blog post was on January 22, 2008. This blog might be my 3rd longest relationship ever excluding my family of origin. Yikes!

Hungry kids and why they exist

Despite the fact that one in five kids in America lives below the poverty level and that one in 45 kids are homeless, it has become increasingly clear to me that the average American doesn’t believe that they see poverty despite the fact that poverty is all around us. Media images of poverty, tend to show a face that is brown or Black or faces that are faraway. I think this creates a situation where it is  is hard for us to imagine that our kids may actually go to school with poor kids. Or that we may even know people who are skipping meals to make their food stretch longer, and who meet the technical definition of food insecure.  Poverty in 2012 is hidden if you don’t know what to look for, in my case, 15 years of working with the poor in several states and for me, the poor are everywhere.

Last week Frontline aired a piece called “Poor Kids and for many people it was an eye opening experience. I had a chance to engage online with a few people during the airing who were literally blown away, unaware of the depth of what poverty really looks like in 2012 and who its victims are.

I had a chance to watch Poor Kids and any of the kids featured could have been the kids I see daily in my work. Kids who are all too aware of what lack and scarcity means, kids who have a familiarity with food pantries and other assistance programs that no young child should have to have. Kids whose firsthand knowledge of poverty and scarcity has taken away their youthful innocence and belief. Poverty’s scars start early and last a lifetime.

A few days after the airing of Poor Kids, I saw the question asked “How does a child in the US go hungry.” Until this afternoon, I didn’t have the words to answer that question, but after today I may be closer to an answer.

Rarely do I work directly with kids in my program anymore; as our staffing has grown and my duties have increased, there simply isn’t time. However local parents know that my door is always open to them if they have a request or simply need to talk.  Today one of the local moms came to ask my assistance in creating a budget. I have made no secret of the fact  that I grew up working class and in my early days as a young wife and later single Mama, I didn’t have much money. I have always thought my experiences brought me a certain amount of street cred since unlike many social service providers, I thought I knew about being broke…I learned today that I know jack. Really.

Long story short, this young single mother of three kids including a pre-teen has a monthly income of $1234 and gets SNAP benefits. After we went through her basic living bills like rent and lights, she has a whopping $274 a month left to cover the toilet paper, tampons, toothpaste, gifts for kids, aspirin. Turns out the SNAP benefits don’t cover all the food costs, so she regularly must go to the food pantry to make her ends meet. This strong beautiful woman has no car, and walks everywhere sometimes upwards of 3-4 miles in one direction to get the best deal on foods with kids in tow.

It hit me that when we look at the actual amounts of money that people are living off of, it is very easy to see how a child can go hungry in this country. For starters, social service providers vary from area to area. In larger cities such as my hometown of Chicago, there are lots of social services and allied agencies ran by professional staffs and are typically better funded than their counterparts in rural or less populous states. I have joked; it really is much nicer being poor in a large city.  In state’s like Maine and similar sized states, social services is often a hodge podge of services often with overworked and really underpaid staff and well-meaning volunteers and frankly not enough services to assist all that need help. I learned today that there is no assistance for security deposits in the town I work in. This young mother who is moving out of a bedbug infested building into a clean and safe place will have to spend every single dollar she has for the next two months to cover her first month’s rent and security deposit which her new landlord is so generously letting her pay in installments.

Think about that. For the next two months this woman will have no money to pay even her light bill (but once she gets a disconnection notice then she can apply for help with the lights) or buy tampons, all so that she can have her kids in a safe and clean place.  That means these kids are at an even greater risk of going without a meal, sadly this story isn’t unique, it’s the story of millions trapped in poverty.

Kids go hungry in America because the resources that exist are not equally distributed. The social safety net is a string and private charities are not equally funded and the needs outweigh the means. It means that I can serve 400+ kids on an annual budget of a hair under $100,000 and with lots of prayers and dedicated volunteers and a staff that believes in the work as much as I do so much that we all work for far less than market value to assist. Yet in larger cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, etc. an agency that serves the same amount of youth will operate on a budget 10-15 times the size of mine.  Until we see all kids and people as equal regardless of location, race, etc. we won’t stop seeing hungry kids.



A do-gooder PSA…helping during the winter holiday season

Now that the winter holiday season is almost here, I feel it is my public duty as a career servant to the less than fortunate and head of a non-profit agency to share some valuable information with you. After all it’s that time of the year when those of us with a few rocks want to lend a hand and do something nice for the folks with no rocks, yet a desire to do well, doesn’t always end well so let me help you out.

First things first, in the ideal world before you go through your closet and your kid’s closet and start clearing things out to take to the local homeless shelter or social service agency, call said agency first and ask what they might need/want. Let me repeat, call and find out what an agency needs before you pull up with a carload of Hefty bags filled your discarded stuff.

See, in real social service agency land, often times your Hefty bags of used stuff creates more work and resources expended for the very people you are trying to assist. At my agency, we stopped taking clothing donations years ago because we had no washer/dryer and too many times the items we received were marginal and frankly should have been taken to the dump. Yet people still try to drop stuff off and seem bothered when we say sorry. Paying my staff to haul stuff away means money spent on something that is not of benefit to our clients’ and creates waste.

That said, if we say sure we would be happy to take your old *insert item* please, pretty please make sure it is in good working condition. Too many times people give items that frankly are on their last leg of life and again, I and other social service providers must spend precious dollars getting rid of this item thus creating wasted resources. After all my staff isn’t hauling stuff for free.

BGIM’s rule of thumb, if you wouldn’t give *insert item* to your Mom, BFF or anyone in your personal circle, please don’t give it to the poor, they may be broke but they are people too!

Issues of food insecurity get lots of coverage in November/December and everyone wants to do something to help but please, pretty please call the food pantry or food bank before you drop off 37 boxes of cold cereal and ask what would work best. For starters many food pantries can use actual dollars to buy food cheaper than you and I can via food banks and they know their clientele best. Which brings me to my next point, for the love of all things precious don’t give food items to the poor and needy that are outdated or gross. Many moons ago on this very blog I shared how once when I was a kiddo and my parents were on hard times someone gave my mother outdated chocolate syrup, 32 years later, I still remember the stench. Seriously, toss old shit out…the poor don’t want it.

Many people love the idea of adopting some poor kiddos and making their winter holiday fabulous and often times will try to work through the schools or local youth service providers. This is a nice idea in theory but often creates a sense of unease, please respect that poor parents are still parents and they have the right to decide what their kids can and can’t have. Please don’t ask social service providers or school social workers to play the role of God or parents. No, I don’t know what the “neediest” need and even if I do, I still need to discuss this with their parents. No, you cannot come and just give presents to the poor kids. Just because a parent is broke does not mean they have given up their parental rights.

Lastly social service providers would love to see you helpful winter helpers in the middle of the summer. For realz. Most food pantries experience a drop off in giving in July/August when you are off vacationing yet hunger and food insecurity does not go away just because the weather is lovely, so consider spacing your support throughout the year.


A frustrated service provider


PS: I know your family wants to do a group activity during the holiday season, but coming to serve food to the poor to teach your kiddos how good they have it really isn’t comfortable. We welcome your help and support but our clients are not creatures to be gawked at or a teachable moment. Please examine your motives and reasons before you sign up. Thanks.