On poverty

Yesterday, the Bangor Daily News told us something we already expected: the percentage of people in poverty is still rising, now almost to levels we have not seen in fifty years. For some, this statistic is not a big deal. For me, it is extremely troubling.

People who followed my primary campaign may have seen a mailing from me: a black and white postcard. Those of a certain age – or with a background in public policy – would recognize what I meant to evoke with the image. I aimed for 1950s Appalachia, a place of simple, hardworking people who never had it easy. A photo series that captured the attention of a nation.

It was the beginning of the War on Poverty.

I was inspired to create the mailing because of what I’ve seen in this campaign and in my work. As I have traveled through the district, I have also gone down roads less traveled. Some are old private roads, with potholes two feet deep. These roads sometimes lead for over a mile into the woods, and come to abrupt, depressing ends.

I have seen more than one trailer in the woods with missing doors or windows. Lawns that haven’t been mowed because the lawnmower was broken and couldn’t be replaced. Young children running around in diapers or nothing at all because they have outgrown their clothing. And deep, deep hunger. Hunger in stomachs, in hearts, in souls.

We apply a number to poverty – make less than so much money, you’re in it. But poverty is this. Poverty is a powerful, ugly force that pushes people together into a slum in the city, or into a broken down trailer at the end of a road in the country. Once it gets them there, it traps them there. And then they face off against a government which would sooner keep them sealed up in those places, forgotten by everyone, than ever let them out again. It is one of the most destructive forces I know.

We then define two sides to the argument, and quite often, both of them are wrong. A Republican defines the problem as personal responsibility. If that person only worked harder, they would pull themselves out of poverty. But as a social worker, I recognize the scientific evidence: poverty can lead to mental health issues that can make it seem inescapable. And so it remains. We cannot hold someone personally responsible for chemical changes in their brain. But we also have to do something to address the problem.

The Democratic side of the argument is that of social responsibility. We have to make sure everyone has enough, no matter what. However, sometimes, that argument ends up being made by well-meaning people who have never experienced poverty themselves, and so the solution becomes one of throwing enough money at poverty to solve it. But those of us who do this work every day also recognize that money helps alleviate the symptoms, but it does not treat them. It’s not just about money.

The solution lies somewhere in between. That doesn’t make it a “moderate” or “independent” solution though, it just means it’s a solution that makes sense. The way to end, or at least significantly reduce poverty is for each person to believe that their country is fair enough to them that they can live a happy, productive life – and to have that actually be true. Unfortunately, that is not the case right now. Right now, we see inequality deeper than any we have seen since before the Great Depression. People need to believe that their individual efforts make a difference in their community, however they define that. If they don’t, then eventually, they’ll give up.

We all know someone who is suffering. They used to be a hard-working individual, or maybe they still are. But when they start to have to decide where their wages will go – whether it’s to rent, or food, or fuel – when the money they used to earn is no longer enough to take care of everything – then it all starts to fall apart. Then that hard worker begins to stumble. They miss a day of work, then two. Drink a little, and then more. Slowly but surely, they give in to their despair.

I have met so many people in similar situations. Their jobs gone, they begin to collect unemployment, or food stamps, or welfare. They don’t want to, but they do. They know that every choice they make in the store is criticized, because as soon as they pull out that blue card with “Maine” written on it, people decide that their tax dollars bought everything in that cart and so they get to have an opinion on what that person is eating. They live their days in shame for having fallen so far – and so they fall further.

The curtains become drawn. The door isn’t answered when people knock. The phone isn’t picked up. We have spent so long scapegoating the poor for our problems that they can’t help but feel the eyes on them when they go out, when they go to the store on the first of the month to get their groceries. The judgment is unbearable.

No wonder so many people are depressed.

I guess the time when I was raised was different. As a child, the expectation set upon me was to help others in any way I could. I took that responsibility very seriously, and so I went to Boston College to become a social worker. I have devoted my entire life to helping others, and as time has gone on, I have seen them struggle more and more even though they’re doing what is expected of them by society.

That’s why I’m doing this. That’s why I’m running. It is one of the most difficult things I have ever done. Every day, my routine is simple: wake up, get ready for work, go to work, drive home, knock on doors, come home. I barely see my husband, and I don’t often get to do anything fun.

But neither do many of the people I’m working to serve. They have it far worse than me. They need someone to fight for them because they’re too busy fighting to live. There, by the grace of God, go I. And so I, too, shall keep going.

3 thoughts on “On poverty

  1. Lisa Dereszewski Reply

    Colleen, this brought tears to my eyes. It’s how I strive to live my life–making a difference in others. A positive difference. A difference that changes things for the better. You know that we support you and your efforts and this example is just one in a litany of many reasons why. Thank you for all you do–for your positions, your insight and your passion. Keep fighting the fight. You, my friend, do make a difference in the lives of others.

  2. Hildy Curato Reply

    loved this…as a fellow social worker I can identify with your world and the desire to make a difference …most people haven’t a clue of what suffering is. at the end of the day it’s the little things we do to make change and I applaud your diligence in your efforts to invoke a better world, starting with our community! thank you!

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