I didn’t have enough money at the market the other day.
It wasn’t a planned trip; I just needed to grab a few things to plug some holes in the pantry and perhaps something fresh for dinner that night.
As the checker scanned I watched the total grow to $57.09. I didn’t even blink as I reached for my wallet, gave her $40 cash and then it hit me—my debit card was still in yesterday’s sport coat. I couldn’t pay the balance.
My face burned as I sheepishly pointed at items to remove from the ticket. The clerk mouthed the words “don’t worry” and reached into her apron, discreetly producing a $10.00 off store coupon.
I was a bit bewildered as I loaded my groceries into the car. This was an aberration for me; a minor embarrassment in the scheme of things but for far too many, not having enough is their reality. Every day, more than one in five Nevadans do not know where their next meal is going to come from.
The stereotypical perspective on poverty in America is that it is a determination problem. People suffer in poverty in this country because they don’t work hard enough. If they truly cared about their family and weren’t lazy, good-for-nothing leeches then they would go out, get a job and quit bitching already. Look at all the free stuff they get! Can’t we get a little gratitude up in here?
50 million Americans currently live in the throes of either situational or generational poverty, an alarming level not seen in this country since the mid 1960s. Not only that, 20% of our children go to bed hungry. It’s easy to gloss over in the face of statistics, but every one of those children has a name. Their families love them as fiercely as you love your children, except they spend every day of their lives doing without. When they look in their wallet, it becomes a choice between eating and heating.
For those living in the culture of poverty, the day-to-day challenges are debilitating. It’s never about getting ahead; it’s only about trying to survive. When they do find the strength to stand up for themselves, landlords, employers, and social service providers punish them for it. What’s worse, society punishes them as well. We judge them for their poor purchases at the grocery store; we ostracize them for their habits. We complain because they have the nerve to spend “our” hard earned tax dollars on frivolities like a microwave or god forbid, a television.
It’s “the makers versus the takers,” some say. “How dare they be allowed the basic comforts we take for granted! Don’t they know WE are supporting their very existence? Get a job stocking shelves at WalMart, for Chrissakes!”
A novel idea, to be sure, but WalMart employee wages are so low that over 80% of their employees are eligible for public assistance, and they get it! To the tune of $420,000 per year, per store. Reagan’s fabled “Welfare Queen” has been found! She resides in Bentonville, Arkansas.
As a community, we must begin to assess what’s truly important. Should we develop a community that has opportunity and growth for everyone, or just those with the social capital necessary to nurture their own opportunity for growth? Will we plan for a future for all our residents or just those that society deems worthy?
The mental and emotional separation between “the poor” and “us” is a delusion. The reality of poverty and hunger in America is that far too many of us are only one paycheck away from homelessness, hunger, and despair.
Look in the mirror—How long could you survive without your current situation? How many paychecks away are you?
This column appears in the May issue of the Reno Tahoe Tonight Magazine. Find this, and more, at http://www.renotahoetonightmagazine.com