The ultimate terror for white people is to leave the highway by mistake and find themselves in East St. Louis. People speak of getting lost in East St. Louis as a nightmare. The nightmare to me is that they never leave that highway so they never know what life is like for all the children here. They ought to get off that highway. The nightmare isn’t in their heads. It’s a real place. There are children living here.”
Jonathan Kozol, St. Louis Dispatch, 1991
“She told me the worst thing that had ever happened to her in her life was when her parents divorced three years ago,” Rochelle told me last week, punctuating the statement with a loud laugh. She was talking about a conversation she had had with a co-worker whose position is one step up from hers. The woman is 19, married with no children, and attends the state university. Her husband has a job with the same grocery store and also attends the state university. Rochelle had a very hard time understanding how a parent’s divorce could be the worst thing a person could have gone through. “I’ve never even had a father,” Rochelle said. “I don’t even know who my father is! I’ve lived through my house burning down and a little baby dying in the fire when I was 11. I’ve had no Christmases when I was growing up, or birthday parties, or food. She at least has two parents.” For Rochelle, the divorce of one’s parents didn’t seem to compare with many of the events of her own upbringing. How could divorce have had such a strong impact on her co-worker? Rochelle keeps her difficult life to herself, so she didn’t say anything to the woman. She saved her amazement for me.
About 15 years ago I drove my friend, Dick, through an old and very poor neighborhood of Laredo, Texas. Laredo is a border city on the shores of the Rio Grande, where a huge proportion of the population lives below the poverty line. I thought it was something Dick most likely had never seen, and I thought he needed to see it. I’ll never forget Dick’s comment: “No wonder they all vote Democratic,” he had loudly exclaimed. Dick is a Republican and even called Social Security “the dole” when he was eligible to receive it. That was as close as Dick ever came to seeing the nightmare of poverty, but he still doesn’t understand it, and he sure doesn’t want to get closer to it. This, of course, is a great part of the problem when searching for solutions to poverty in our country. We can’t fix what we refuse to see and understand.
If you are new to reading this blog, I suggest you go to some of the very first posts so you can better understand Rochelle’s life. The earlier blogs set the stage for the future ones. They depict a life that happened right here in my town. Not all that far away from my house, on the other side of the tracks, or in this town’s situation, the other side of the interregional highway. Life is different on that side of town, as Rochelle’s conversation with her co-worker points out so dramatically. Poverty won’t find solutions until more people understand how this nightmare of poverty develops and continues. And lest we comfort ourselves with the thought that poverty is simply a fact of life that can never be eliminated, let’s rethink that notion. For one thing, poverty never existed until cities developed; it is not a natural human condition. And for a second thing, poverty has been all but eradicated in some countries, notably in Scandinavia; if a society has the will to eliminate poverty, it can be done.