Name: margalit
Location: Massachusetts, United States Professional writer, educational advocate, opinionated ultra liberal mother of 18 year old twins, living life in the slow lane due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, congestive heart failure, and diabetes.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Blog Action Day 08: Poverty on a local level

Today around the blogosphere you're going to see a lot of posts about poverty. Some will be about global poverty, some will be advice on what you can do to change poverty in third world countries, and some will be about poverty on a more local scale. I'm going to talk about poverty on a very very local scale, hidden poverty in your own community.

We live in rich countries. Whether you're American, Canadian, British, Australian, Israeli, or European, if you're reading this blog, chances are you're from a wealthy community with plenty of resources that you believe are adequate to help with people that might be in trouble. Your belief is wrong. We might live in wealthy communities, but there is a hidden population in every city and town. That population are the poor, the people that aren't making it and rely on outside help to pay their bills, to ensure that their rent is paid, and to feed their children. Now, I'm no internet neophyte. I know that just stating that there are people that need help is going to raise the ire of those Libertarians out there that honestly believe that everyone can work, that everyone can earn enough to care for their families, that people that can't are disgusting leeches on society. Anyone that has ever posted about needing help gets that response in spades. Mostly those that protest against poverty are uneducated about what a safety net is all about, or are so focussed on their own selfish lives that they refuse to acknowledge that there are people living amongst them that do need help. They don't care. If it isn't about them, then fuck 'em. Obviously, this post isn't about or for these folks. This post is for the people who want to learn how they can help their hidden neighbors, those living outwardly a good decent life but inside are hurting and struggling because they are unable to get their needs met.

Poverty has been a nasty little secret in our local communities for a long time. We've been trained to believe that poverty means people of color living in inner city communities that are falling apart. Poverty means people that are deemed "welfare queens" even though it is virtually impossible to cheat on welfare after the welfare reform act during the Clinton administration. I know, you all know "someone" who knows "someone" who drives a Hummer and is on welfare. I say "bullshit" and I say it loudly and clearly. I still hear stories about people shopping with food stamps, even though there hasn't been food stamps for over 10 years. People who shop with food stamps now use an EBT card, which is just like any other credit card. They've created a program in the US that now makes poverty a secret even when grocery shopping.

Welfare in the USA is a helping hand these days. You can only remain on welfare for 2 years, and you MUST WORK to earn your welfare. If you don't find a job on your own, you will be assigned a job. So please, no more of the welfare queen stories. They're dead wrong, and if you spout them, you only look like the bigot you are.

So lets talk about who the poor may be in your community. They are certainly the elderly. Anyone living on a fixed social security income is living in poverty. They are certainly the disabled. Again, anyone living on a fixed social security income is living in poverty. They are single mothers of all colors who are not getting their child support payments. They are people that rent dilapidated apartments on the outskirts of town so their children will get a good education. They are people who have been unemployed after massive layoffs who are unable to find work. They are caretakers of the sick and elderly. They are often hard-working people who do not get paid enough to cover their expenses. They could be your next door neighbors or members of your own family.

So the haters cry "Move" because these people can't afford to live there. Like moving is free. Look at all those trucks lining up to load your belongings and drop them off in Podunk, where the living is easy. But most people who are in poverty in your communities have long roots in your community. They are church goers, synagogue attenders, they are second and third generation families from your towns. They live there because it is their home, and although our country does have a disgusting history of uprooting populations and resettling them in impossible places (think Trail of Tears or the Japanese during WW2), we're not going to do that just to keep the poor out of your eyesight. It doesn't work that way. The poor deserve to live in their own communities amoungst their friends and families just like you do.

So what can communities do to make it an easier life for the poor? What can you do personally?

I challange you to work within your own community to help out in several ways.

The first problem for the poor is food. If your community has a food pantry, it isn't working well. I promise you that wherever you live, your food pantry sucks. People haven't ever been taught how to donate to food pantries, and they don't understand that minimal dietary requirements go beyond canned foods, pasta and rice. The reason we have such a terrible problem with obesity amongst poor children isn't that they're eating twinkies. It is that they are not eating fruits and vegetables because your food pantry does not give out perishibles or only provides a highly inadequate supply.

So how do you help? Join a CSA and provide half of your monthly allotment to the food pantry. Get your neighbors to do the same thing. Grow a garden and plant a row for the food bank. Get your whole community involved in a "grow a row" program. That alone would be enough to help poor families to supplement their diets with good homegrown food. If your community has farms, talk to the farmers about donating produce to the food pantry.

When you donate to a food pantry, do not only buy the cheapest, crappiest products that you can find. The poor don't deserve to be singled out for only the worst products. It's better to donate one can less but of a recognizable brand (store brands are fine) than it is to buy something that doesn't even have a label. Chances are, that food will be tossed. DO NOT clean out your own pantry and donate food that is expired. If you're not going to eat it, why do you think that the poor will want to eat it? Don't donate food with bugs. Oh yes, people do it all the time. Don't donate overly salty foods. Shop the sales and buy pasta in bulk. Assume that people do know how to cook and buy canned tomatoes and sauces instead of jarred. You can buy much more if you stick to the very basics. Cereals are huge items in food pantries. But often people donate cereals that are inedible or so bad for kids that they don't get used. Stick with the tried and true. Cheerios in various forms, raisin bran, corn flakes... nothing fancy but better than Count Chocula. Just because people are poor doesn't mean that they don't understand a decent diet.

Housing is also a huge issue. If you are a landlord, PLEASE make an effort to keep up your property. I know this is a controversial statement, but the truth of the matter is, most landlords collect their money and don't do a damn thing to keep up the property, then blame the poor family for damages they could have avoided if you just kept up with the property. Just because people are poor doesn't mean they need to live with bugs, rodents, peeling paint, leaking roofs, etc. It's your property. If you don't take pride in it, sell it to someone that does.

Your community probably has a housing office that handles any Section 8 or subsidized housing. Most likely that housing office isn't being run efficiently and is probably unfairly giving friends and family housing over people on the list. Don't believe me? Look into it. Ask people who are on the list for years and years how it works. You'll hear an earful and more. In my own community the wait list is 20 years long. I've been on it for close to 8 years now, and I move up to about slot 3, and then move down again to 16 or 18. Again and again. Our housing office is a crooked as can be, and you can bet I've looked into it and found out where the corruption lies. If your housing office allows it, educate yourself on how the office works and become an advocate for the poor so that corruption is curbed.

Another issue that the poor face are the high utility bills that we're all getting these days. Imagine what it's like to be on a totally fixed income and get a bill that is 444% higher than it was a year ago. Where is that money going to come from to pay that increase? Many state agencies have programs to help with heating bills. But that help is wholely inadequate. My northeastern state costs around $4000 to heat a small home per winter, but the subsidized portion of the bill is about $600. It is not enough. How can you help? If you belong to an active church or synagogue, see if you can raise interest in helping out with heating bills for the families of your community. Work with your town social worker (they're in city hall) to see if you can sponsor families. A few dollars goes a long way towards filling an oil tank.

Make sure that your elderly neighbors have heat. Go over and check out their homes. If the house is freezing, chances are that they need an oil delivery and don't have the money. We all have to care for each other in this economy, and heat is an absolute necessity. Imagine how you would feel if you found out that your neighbor froze to death in her own home while you sat back cozy and warm in your own home. Reach out.

Even with these three things in your sight, there are many other things. Those clothes you have piled up in your attic. Donate them to families that are in need. Donate your old winter coats to the coat drives. Get involved with any community holiday projects. Remember that people tend to donate around the holidays and then forget the rest of the year. We can't do that anymore. Mark your calendars and make sure that you give at least monthly to the food pantry, and to donate outgrown clothing. If you're cleaning out your clutter, instead of donating to Goodwill, who sell your items back to the poor at a profit, use freecycle and craigslist and give the stuff away free to families in need. You CAN specify that you want to know where the stuff is going, or to only give to a homeless or battered woman's shelter.

Lastly, don't judge. You might be appalled to see a WII in a poor person's house, but that might have been a gift from a grandparent. Just because people are poor doesn't mean that they aren't allowed to live as comfortable a life as possible. They might have inherited nice rugs or furniture. They might have been in much better financial circumstances years past and have things from that time in their lives. You don't know. It isn't your business to judge. It isn't your business to question. If someone is having a hard time with food, housing, clothings, and heat... don't advise them to sell everything they own first. What you see in their house might be something of huge sentimental or familial value and you don't get to tell anyone to rid their lives of things that mean a lot to them. Take it from one that has gotten rid of most of the stuff I don't care about. What I have left is part of my life and I'm hanging on to some sembelance of a decent life no matter how poor I now am.

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Blogger queerpoet said...

Great post. Thanks for laying it out there and especially how we can all help each other.


15/10/08 6:03 AM  
Blogger Jendeis said...

A great post with good action steps. Hadn't thought before about the differences between Goodwill and Freecycle; will start donating items there.

15/10/08 8:19 AM  
Blogger Monroe on a budget said...

"They might have been in much better financial circumstances years past and have things from that time in their lives."

That comment is right on target.

Besides, have you looked up prices on the second-hand market lately? How much cash will anybody get for selling off their "luxury" items these days?

15/10/08 7:36 PM  
Blogger Janet said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

15/10/08 9:34 PM  
Blogger Janet said...

"Libertarians out there that honestly believe that everyone can work, that everyone can earn enough to care for their families, that people that can't are disgusting leeches on society."

Libertarians do not believe that. They believe that it is not the government's responsibility to provide assistance - that help should come from private sources.

15/10/08 9:36 PM  
Blogger margalit said...

Janet, and if there are no private sources? If a person doesn't have a family capable of helping? If a community is cutting back on it's own resources like paving roads and repairing schools, where is that money coming from? Private sources are only as good as the economy. If the economy fails, like it is now, the FIRST people to suffer are the poor. Libetarians make NO sense on this topic. And yes, they DO believe that the poor are leeches on society.

16/10/08 12:46 AM  
Blogger Daisy said...

good advice. Concrete steps people can take, valid reasoning and experience. No, I'm not grading the post; I'm thanking you for speaking with clarity!

16/10/08 6:45 PM  

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