Archive for the ‘Poverty’ Category

Writing on a Wall

February 1st, 2014

Portsmouth,_New_Hampshire_-_bridgeIt’s nice that the President has noticed that our country has a problem with “income inequality,” as it is the fashion to call it, or, as I call it, excessive numbers of excessively rich and excessively poor people.  In the spirit of the time, I would like to forward some words from a person who was professionally concerned with the topic.  This is printed on a poster in the conference room at the Vermont Department for Children and Families’ Morrisville District Office. David Murray, who wrote it, was a long time employee of the Department’s Economic Services Division.  Or, as we used to call it when things had names that meant anything, the social welfare department. He passed away a few years ago.  Please forgive the acronyms and references to outdated programs.  I think you’ll get the gist.

I was sitting in a Voc Rehab office this morning with a person who is at ETC and has medical barriers to work. To help pass the time I asked what her kids were doing this summer and she told me they were doing volunteer work. Then she asked me if I was taking a vacation this summer. I said yes, the family and I were going to Maine for a week. She thought that was nice and said she had never been to Maine. This woman is my age – over forty. I thought it odd that she had never been to Maine, as most people seem to go there to see the ocean, so I asked her if she had gone to New Hampshire to see the ocean. She said, “No, I have never seen the ocean.”

This may show how naïve I am, but this amazed me. I can remember as a kid headed for Maine for the first time, my parents told me that the water was so wide I wouldn’t be able to see the other side. I didn’t believe them. How could anything be that big? But it was and when I got there I was thrilled at the sight!

She is forty-something years old, lives five or six hours from the ocean and has never seen it. She has been on welfare for a long time and can be called one of the “hard to serve.” Are these facts connected? Who can say? If this were 1986 and I were still an SPOP worker (ask an older co-worker if you don’t know what this means) I would suggest she save up her SPOP allowances for a few months and use the money to go see the ocean. Maybe then I would have my answer.

In the rush of ETL dates, conciliations, sanctions, job placements, assessments and all the rest, I think we need to keep some perspective, especially with the hard to serve. We need to keep in mind that it might be hard to see a future if you haven’t seen the ocean.

You all know there are many things the hard to serve haven’t seen besides the ocean. Like supportive parents and spouses, praise for jobs well done, involvement in constructive school activities and on and on and on.

Our job is to help people see the future. Maybe that should be one of the questions on the assessment form, “Can you see your future; have you seen the ocean?


Help! I’m stuck in this box!

January 7th, 2013

Listening to the radio the other day, I heard a man being interviewed about his income.  He was a bit coy about the amount, but allowed that it was over $450,000 per year.  When asked if this made him wealthy, he said no, he considered himself middle class.  My reaction was a compound of emotions: disbelief, amazement, anger, contempt.

Last night I watched the opening episode of the third season of Downton Abbey.  It revolved around Lord Grantham’s discovery that he had squandered the family fortune through an ill-considered investment in Canadian railway shares, with the likely consequence that his estate and manor house would have to be sold.  Considering this possibility at the dinner table, Lord Grantham’s mother, wonderfully played by Maggie Smith, envisions her future as a member of the impoverished nobility.  “I could keep a shop, I suppose,” she says, expressing her character’s sense of the utter unthinkability of any such thing actually happening and her simultaneous wise, rueful recognition that in a long life the unthinkable will be encountered from time to time.  My reaction was one of empathy for her predicament.

Interesting, the many directions in which the mind would like to run off, given this fuel.  The particular constellation of feelings with which I greeted that upper-class yob’s misestimate of his socio-ceconomic standing is one with which I have become boringly familiar, ever since Ronald Reagan acceded to the presidency in 1980 and forcibly made me aware that this nation is governed far more by mean-spirited greed than by the ideals I had learned about in elementary school.  So I responded to the interviewee, a living person, as an abstraction, an annoying manifestation of obnoxious political tendencies.  By contrast, safely removed by time and circumstance from any actual acquaintance with the type of hidebound parasite so charmingly and ably represented by the actress Ms. Smith, I responded to her fictitious impersonation with warmth and sympathy.

I think that the moral here has to do with the limited ways one responds when one’s responses are faithful to the context in which they occur.  As a wise man used to say to me when I would make an undeniably true but overly definitive statement about myself, “Yes, and so much more!”  May you and I greet the new year and all it brings with the untrammeled freshness of our open hearts.  Maggie Smith’s dowager countess may charm and appal us all at once, as may that poor deluded two percenter who thinks himself the common man.  Oh, poor thing, I wish I had said when I heard him.

WAP! (for Greg)

May 12th, 2011

One thing we learn from the success of  microlenders such as Grameen Bank is that it may not be a mere tautology to say that a root cause of poverty is lack of money.  Matthew Yglesias has had some fun with this idea.  But take it one step further.  In a society like ours, where 1% of the population owns something like 33% of the assets (look it up yourself), it might even make sense to say that a root cause of poverty is rich people.  After all, there is only a finite amount of wealth.  If most of the sand is piled at one end of the beach, then the people at the other end will have muddy feet.

I would like to attack poverty at its cause by enlisting rich people in ending it. (I am going to assume that if you are reading this you already think that gross income inequality is a Bad Thing and you don’t need to be convinced of the immorality and exorbitant social cost of it.)  To this end, I would like to propose what I call the Wealth

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