Poverty. Three syllables, but such a big word.
It’s what I’ve heard again and again to my question, “What is the biggest issue facing the Quad-Cities?”
Nine times out of 10, the answer is that one word, “Poverty.”
It’s impossible to ignore. The traditional markers of poverty – boarded up windows in occupied houses, overgrown lawns, evidence of people unable to keep up with life’s mounting challenges -- drive on the main thoroughfares of Davenport, Moline, East Moline, Rock Island, is a tour of struggle.
As I hear that word “poverty,” over and over, I’ve been thinking about how we talk out of both sides of our mouth about being poor. It’s hard to ignore during a presidential campaign year where candidates have poor-offs, comparing how much they or their parents went through economically. In the same speech, there’s the rhetoric admonishing and blaming the poor for being a part of what’s wrong with this country.
It’s no wonder that middle-aged suicides spiked 40 percent during the Great Recession, according to Psychology Today. There is shame in poverty. There’s blame in being poor.
And yet it makes a good story. Marco Rubio’s parents were Cuban immigrants who worked in the service industry, he said. Ben Carson was raised by a single mother, in public housing on food stamps, he said.
It sounds good from the stage – coming from someone spending millions of dollars on a campaign to be the most powerful person in the world. But that’s not who we chose to lead us. The presumptive nominee is a wealthy real estate mogul who calls anyone who struggles a “loser.”
Despite the talk, there’s shame in living paycheck to paycheck, which is the kind of poverty most people live in. There’s shame in being homeless and not being able to find a bathroom. There’s shame in being the child whose clothes are dirty and whose one pair of shoes are worn out.
Maybe the dissonant rhetoric works -- stories about the “salt of the earth” and “good, country people,” to quote Flannery O’Connor, followed by narratives of “welfare moms” – because the poor are not in the audience. According to U.S. Census numbers from 2012, people living in poverty – people making less than $20,000 per year – vote in smaller numbers, while 80 percent of people making more than $150,000 a year do vote.
Years ago, I worked in a failed steel town just outside Pittsburgh, and witnessed first-hand the generational culture of people living off the system and the ways social workers justified and enabled those habits. But in order to have the real conversation about poverty, we need to recognize that is only one segment of the problem. Retelling welfare mom stories allows us to hate and over-simplify and feel like we’re solving the problem by reducing food stamp dollars and little else.
Poverty. That meaningless, weighty word.
This December, as I sorted through applications for the Quad-City Times Wish List program, I read a request for a little boy that I still think about. The boy needed a mattress and a blanket. He had no toys. Could we buy him something to play with? He needed socks, shoes, a winter coat. Maybe, if we had some extra money, we could buy him a book, too.
Everyone who says poverty is the biggest problem in the Quad-Cities is right, but how do we as a community help that little boy? We buy him socks for Christmas, but how do we make sure he gets through high school, when he doesn’t have a book to read? How do we give him a blanket when he’s 5 and then make sure he doesn’t wash away with the undertow?
As we head toward into the home stretch of a presidential campaign that’s all about the economy, and as local leaders try to address poverty, we’re all pecking for an answer. I wish I had one. I know it’s not narratives and hyperbole. It’s not the noble poor and the lazy man who doesn’t want to work. It’s not blame and shame. It’s far, far more complicated. And until the conversation gets as nuanced as the issue, we’ll never beat it.