Poverty doesn't just exist overseas
When many of us think of hunger or poverty, the first image that comes to mind is that of a young, usually dirty, child living in a ragtag shelter. Because of years of marketing by nonprofit organizations, this image is also usually of a child in an economically depressed or war-torn country far away from the United States. Organizations like C.A.R.E., Doctors Without Borders, and Oxfam have done an amazing job over the years calling attention to issues like global poverty and hunger. They are to be credited because their efforts have resulted in saving countless lives around the world for many years. While the efforts of these types of organizations are to be applauded and have undoubtedly had a positive impact, years of efforts to call attention to global issues may have had a negative impact on the American perception of poverty and hunger. For many Americans, poverty and economic deprivation are framed and imagined in terms of the imagery shown from places like Somalia, Nicaragua, or always popular charity marketing favorite – India.
One has only to wander through the most severely depressed areas of Appalachia, stagnant regions of the South, or the deteriorating, rotting sections of some of our largest, most affluent cities to see that extreme poverty and hunger exists in America as well. Because we have been trained for many years to see destitution in terms of flies, swollen bellies, and drought affected fields, we seem to have become immune to how it shows its face among our own people.
Part of our difficulty in acknowledging American poverty is many of us retain an image of the America of old. For most of our history, the United States has been a country of opportunity. Part of our national psyche is that the American Dream is alive and well and we must do is have the initiative to take control of our own destiny and put forth the effort to better our own lives. We have grown up believing that the opportunity is there, we just have to work for it. For most of our history, that has been true. Things have changed in America. The American Dream is still there, but it is increasingly only there for those that have already achieved it. Many of the rest must attempt to survive on $7.25 an hour. Even for those that have been fortunate enough to find a job that allows them 40 hours a week, even at a somewhat better wage, the cost of rent, transportation, utilities, etc., leave little, if any, left over for food. This doesn’t take into account those who can’t find employment or can only get partial employment.
These people don’t fit our stereotype of what poverty is, or what hunger is, and so many have a tendency to dismiss their “alleged” destitution and assign words like “lazy”, “criminal”, or any other term that makes them “one of those people.” Many argue that Americans have safety nets through the government, and that was once the case. It is often these same people that then argue that the government spends too much on social programs and screams for budget cuts. Many argue that private groups provide assistance to those in extreme poverty, and that is certainly true. It is an indisputable fact that Americans are the most charity conscious people in the world. But many of those private groups find themselves unable to help when economic conditions take a dramatic downturn, as in the most current recession crisis that has affected us all. And then there is the other issue with private groups that many don’t like to acknowledge or speak of out loud – prejudice (racial, social, economic, or otherwise). As an example, I had a person tell me a story about a church she attended that didn’t want to give food from their food bank to an individual because that person wasn’t a member or their church and they really weren’t interested in having “those types” of people there. These are just some of the many barriers Americans living in poverty face.
We must continue to call attention to global poverty and hunger and, as Americans, we have always had a special place in our hearts for assisting those in need. For many of us, however, it is time that we stop believing that global poverty and hunger are issues across the globe and realize that hunger may be sitting just outside our door.
(James Jackson writes his “different perspective” column each Friday. His columns are submitted as an opinion editorial and are not meant to represent an official view of The Sun-Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)