I came across a quote of Martin Luther King’s: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” After spending two years as a VISTA volunteer in the War on Poverty in 1966, and again in 1969, I came to understand how true this was. It has hit home even more deeply after spending more than a year interviewing Rochelle. Just recently I was having lunch with a new friend who does subscribe to this blog. “I feel so badly for her. What can I do? Can I give her some money?” she asked. “It will take a lot more than money to solve her problems,” I replied. My friend really wanted to help but felt helpless. I know my sister and I often feel helpless as well.
I was thinking about all that a couple of days ago when Rochelle came over for her weekly interview. In a few days it would be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I had been 16 and a senior in high school the day it happened. I was listening to my teacher’s lecture on current events in my 3rd period history class; the school’s public address system interrupted the class with the announcement of the president’s death in Dallas. Rochelle’s mother had just been born that year so this is very ancient history to Rochelle. We recently had seen the movie The Butler, however, so I knew she was somewhat aware of the history. This, combined with the fact that this 50th anniversary was getting tremendous coverage on television, made me bring up the subject during my interview. Rochelle knows that the reason my sister, brother and I are so interested in the problems of poverty is because we were all VISTA volunteers; what she doesn’t know anything about is what The War on Poverty was. VISTA changed me and changed my siblings far more than it benefitted the disadvantaged people we worked with in those years. John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson knew “an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring,” but President Kennedy’s Peace Corps did not wipe out poverty outside the United States and VISTA didn’t put much of a dent in domestic poverty. The programs have accomplished some positive changes in the lives of the poor, but what most volunteers will say is that it changed them the most.
“I wouldn’t be sitting here interviewing you in 2013 if it hadn’t been for President Kennedy and President Johnson,” I told Rochelle. I had joined VISTA less than 3 years after Kennedy’s death. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” he had said in his famous inaugural speech. I took that to heart and interrupted college to join VISTA after my sophomore year. My eldest sister followed a few months later; much later, when my brother had finished college, he signed up as well. I’m not sure any of us had known any poor people before our VISTA experiences; the town we grew up in was almost entirely white and middle class. I know I met a black person for the first time in Oklahoma City during my volunteer year there. Rochelle knows that story, though she was amazed when I told it to her.
Martin Luther King wrote in his last book, Where Do We Go from Here: “One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life.” This is what I meant when I told my friend at lunch that it was going to take a whole lot more than money to solve the problems produced by poverty. Money does help, however. The grocery store Rochelle works for just handed out thank you cards to their hourly employees for a job well done over the last fiscal year. Inside the card was an unexpected $100 bill. Rochelle just couldn’t believe it. $100 was going to come in very handy with her food stamps down and her rent up. Perhaps, now that she is working full-time, she will qualify for Obamacare; not a perfect health care plan by any means, but a godsend for those who previously had no health care and turned to the emergency rooms when they needed doctors. This is a needed restructuring of an edifice such as Martin Luther King was referring to. It is, however, only a small step in the transformation of the Jericho road King wrote about in his book.