The Nightmare of Poverty

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

 

1557604_10152220740161654_935384944_n “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.

Unequal Opportunities 101

Unknown“Why is it that all the healthy food costs lots of money?”  Rochelle asked me one day.  Now that she works in a grocery store she has noticed that organic vegetables and everything advertised as healthy is expensive; more money than she can afford.  “I would buy healthier food if I could afford it,” she said.  And of course, that is indeed the case.  Not only does Rochelle buy food that is high in calories and low in nutritional value, because that is the food that she grew up with, but she buys it because it is all she can afford; she has also never learned how to cook some of the healthier foods.  Fried chicken and pork combined with lots of carbohydrates is basically what her family eats.  They also consume a lot of soft drinks and a lot of junk food.

The grocery store where Rochelle works is interesting because it was built last summer in a location that serves customers of both low and high-income neighborhoods.  The store was built right at the dividing line of these two areas.   The higher income neighborhood was newly built a few years ago; the other is the neighborhood Rochelle lives in which has poor schools, deteriorating apartment buildings, and high crime.  Watching the different products brought to the register has been an educational experience for Rochelle.  The new, affluent neighborhood, however, does have some “affordable housing”.  This took some time to work out with various agencies, but it is something the community wanted to happen.  “Affordable housing” does not mean that it provides for subsidized housing so it is still unaffordable for the very poor.  It may be affordable for a family of four making $50,000 but not for a family of four making $20,000.  This newly built community is, however, a step in the right direction.  It is on the side of town where the poor live.  They lived on that side of town when I moved here in 1969, and a story in this Sunday’s newspaper showed that this is still where most of the poor live almost 50 years later.  The newly built neighborhood has tried to make inroads into this situation.

The town Rochelle and I live in is divided by a major north/south highway; it was once called “The Interregional” because it reaches from Mexico to Chicago.  The richer, and mostly white, people live on the west side of this highway; the east side is where the poorer, and mostly minority, people make their homes.  It has been this way for a long time.  In general it has been an area of no banks, few grocery stores and poor schools.  Somewhat south of where Rochelle lives has started to gentrify over the last 10 years.  The rents are cheap and artists and young hipsters and professionals have started to move in.  Rents are going up, and poor people are moving out.  Things will look very different in 50 more years.

Rochelle lived, grew up and went to school with people somewhat similar to her; until recently she didn’t even realize there was a difference between healthy and unhealthy foods.  A lot of us, rich and poor, live surrounded by people similar to ourselves.  If you are poor, however, at least in this town and many towns like this, you won’t have good schools, or banks, or good grocery stores available to you because they just won’t be in your neighborhoods.  If you are poor you will have unequal opportunities from the rich.  Learning about opportunities available outside her neighborhoods is another mountain Rochelle is trying to climb.  Working at the grocery store has been an eye opening experience.  “But I can’t buy my meat here,” Rochelle said of her store.  “They don’t have what I want.”

Pete Seeger died last week; he often sang a Woody Guthrie song which expresses the unequal opportunity problem very well, especially in these two verses:

                                                This Land is Your Land

                              Was a big high wall there, that tried to stop me.

                              Was a great big sign that said Private Property.

                              But on the other side, it didn’t say nothin’.

                             That side was made for you and me.

 

                             One bright sunny morning, in the shadow of the steeple,

                             By the relief office, I saw my people.

                             As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering, if

                            This land was made for you and me.