I’m Wondering About Poverty

So I went on a mission trip to Nicaragua 3 times to work with orphans for Mustard Seed Communities back when I lived in New York after being inspired by my friend Maria Nordone, who brought the trip to our parish.

You haven’t seen poverty until you’ve been to the developing world.

People living in houses–nay, shacks made of cardboard (pictured, right) with corrugated tin roofs. Children with special needs who are simply left on the streets in hopes that someone can care for them because a special needs child will make everyone else starve. People living at the garbage dump with little hope of ever getting out of poverty.

I saw all of this with my own eyes. A young man I visited, who thought nothing of jumping in a hammock filled with bugs, told me some sad facts. “I’m trying to study hard to get to a university and get out of here. I live here in Chureca (the name of the garbage dump) and I work here too. When the trucks come to dump the garbage children run to try to get the best garbage first. Most people tell me that I’m crazy to try. If you are born in Chureca, you will die in Chureca.”

Heart-breaking to say the least. I encouraged him to study. He was a pretty smart kid. With just one advantage that we all take for granted, he would be able to get out of poverty’s blight.

But for many that opportunity never shows itself to them.

I’m in Vanceburg, Kentucky in Lewis County, one of the poorer places in the U.S., and I’m wondering what kind of poverty I will encounter here. Here are some facts from Glenmary’ website about Lewis County:

Lewis County has a population of about 13,752, mostly of Scottish, Scotch-Irish and Irish descent. The county is about 484 square miles in size.

People in Lewis County are employed primarily in logging and manufacturing and about 50 percent of the workforce leaves the county to find work. The unemployment rate fluctuates between 8% to 16%, depending on the season of the year.

The median household income for the county is $28,466 compared to the average U.S. median income of $46,326. The per capita income of Lewis County is $16,683 compared to the national average of $33,041.

The percent of people living below the national poverty level in Lewis County is 25.1 percent which is two times the national average of 12.3 percent; 75 percent of students in the county qualify for free or reduced lunch; 50 percent of infants to preschool age children live below the national poverty level.

The percentage of people over the age of 25 that have a high school diploma is 57.4 percent, the national average is 80.4 percent; 22.4 percent of the population of Lewis County have less than a ninth grade education. The percentage of people over 25 who have a college degree is 6.4 percent compared to the national average of 24.4 percent.

There are 46.5 percent of the families in Lewis County headed by a female with no husband present and 11.5 percent of the mothers in the county are 10-19 years of age.

In our country and with our infrastructure there’s no reason that anyone should be in poverty. I firmly believe that. A redistributing of wealth is certainly needed in some way.

I’m really wondering how this will compare with poverty in Nicaragua? You’ll find out by week’s end when I return.

Pray that we have a fruitful week and that we travel back safely to Buffalo.

Poor Does Not Mean Stupid

My father was a school custodian and my mother didn’t work because of illness and her choice to stay home with me and my sister. There wasn’t always a lot of money but we always had enough. They knew how to prioritize their lives and they always put family ahead of any luxuries that they would have liked to have.

We didn’t have cable TV. We didn’t take vacations (Dad was happy to be home with us). We didn’t have a sleek car (Dad’s 1971 Chevelle was still running when I was a junior in high school in 1987). We took care of things and made them last.

The neighborhood, however, was another story.

I was talking with a colleague who was complaining about fireworks late at night in her largely quiet suburban neighborhood. I sympathized with her, but also remembered what the 4th of July was like for much of my young adolescence.

My friend’s brother sold illegal fireworks (and drugs) in our neighborhood. And on the 4th there was a huge fireworks “show” right out my front window. It went on and on until 3 or 4AM. We routinely got no sleep and were often afraid of someone burning down the neighborhood.

There was a lot to be afraid of in my neighborhood. I was mugged in front of my own apartment house for a lousy two bucks by someone I knew and his friends. My dad got hit with a rock from a pissed off teen ager who was annoyed at him for asking him to move his car. A young man was shot to death in front of our corner store and when I mentioned that I knew who he was was, albeit not well, my 7th grade catholic school teacher looked at me askance.

Somehow, thanks to my parents and sister, I stayed out of trouble, graduated high school with honors, struggled in undergraduate years and have had two fairly successful career paths.

It all started on a not-so-little street in Yonkers.

My parents still live in that apartment and the neighborhood is about the same. It’s still not a safe area, albeit the evening noise has quieted down significantly. There’s an amazing view of the hudson and the Palisades from my parent’s bedroom window. Until I went to middle school, I’m not sure if I knew how dangerous the neighborhood was.

In high school my dad drove my baseball teammates home on occasion, saving them the requisite bus fare. “They’re a lot worse off than us.” he’d say. He was right. Their neighborhoods were war zones some days. Drugs being the predominant problem. One day, Dad had to drop me off at home so I could get ready for a family event. He then proceeded to drive home Tommy and Carlos, two of my teammates, both hispanic, and both who lived in the seedier side of town.

When he got to our apartment, I started to get out of the car. Tommy said, “Yo Mike, I didn’t know you lived in the ghetto!”

It wasn’t a slur. It was a message of acceptance, perhaps surprise, even. The next day, Tommy and Carlos told me that they were in fact, surprised that me, “the smart kid, the one who we imagined lived somewhere really, really nice, lives in a place that’s not so different from us. And he’s not as tough as we are. How does he ever make it through the day?”

I smiled and said, “Guys, look, a lot of people are gonna look down on us, all of us, because we’re sons of custodians, sanitation workers, postal carriers and other jobs requiring manual labor. Some of our teammates even get public assistance. But just because we struggle doesn’t mean that we’re dumb. Just because there’s a lot of people who are more advantaged than us doesn’t mean that we’re any less smart than they are. If we work hard and work together, we’ll be OK.”

I remember those teammates fondly. I was hardly a great baseball player. Tommy had a few cups of coffee in the minor leagues and even tried out for the Yonkers team that I was the color commentator for one year on the radio. I tried to convince the GM to buy his contract, but she passed. Carlos went to a small college and I lost track of him after that. Those guys often took some extra time to work with me on my baseball skills and at times I’d help them with schoolwork or getting a teacher to cut them some slack.

Mostly, though, they taught me a valuable lesson about diversity. We were all sons and daughters of people who others would look down on, and who many educators and sociologists would say didn’t have a chance to get out of the “ghetto.” At our tenth reunion, I looked around the room and couldn’t believe that we all had done pretty well for ourselves.

Poor does not mean stupid, and I fear that’s something that many people think. Today let us pray for the working poor. Those who are often challenged by the economy and who live check to check trying to make ends meet. Let’s pray for the “ghetto,” often a term that means a bad neighborhood, it can also be a symbol of overcoming the odds that was placed against you.

Not that long ago, my colleague Bill McGarvey and I were talking about someone who we admired as an author. Frankly, I was envious of her achievements and Bill was quick to remind me that “(I) had come so much farther in writing (my) book.” I did it without any contacts or guidance from parents or even a bunch of money. Sometimes it’s that much harder to succeed when you don’t come from a place of esteemed wealth, but when you do, one should be much prouder of that.

So today we say thanks to all who helped along the way. And we hope that there’s more than a few others that we can help along the same road as time goes on.

Pope says “individuals” need to change in order to change cycle of poverty

Quote of the weekend:

Economy and finance … can be used badly when those at the helm are motivated by purely selfish ends. …we must adopt a realistic attitude as we take up … new responsibilities to which we are called by the prospect of a world in need of profound cultural renewal, a world that needs to rediscover fundamental values … it is not the instrument [the economy] that must be called to account, but individuals, their moral conscience and their personal and social responsibility.

Pope Benedict XVI’s third encyclical, which focuses on the economy. Today he furthered this statement by denouncing the deplorable rate of poverty in Argentina.