Saturday, September 2, 2006

Poverty: Loosening the Iron Bars

8:00 AM, Saturday morning, on the F train, Brooklyn to Manhattan.

Exhausted, lined faces—tired people going somewhere they would rather not be. Stunned or somnolent, most of them, wearing the paltry fashion found at Dee Dee's or hand-me-downs of the Salvation Army: these are the professionals, on their way to work.

They are here in the company of the natives of this underground realm, the homeless. These are easily identified, for each of them has an entire group of seats to himself—sometimes an entire section of the car, depending on their aroma. They are well marked with erythematous skin, whose mottled scabs are the signature of the homeless body. Most are bloated on poor food and cheap booze.

Between them, these two groups—the working and non-working poor—occupy most of the train this morning. Unlike the weekday commute, I see no white earbuds, no iPods, no laptops, none of the latest bestselling books, and scarcely any newspapers even. In that sense, there is a unique dignity to this scene: the dignity of sparseness, even amid the silent restiveness of want, or the sprawl of desolation over three plastic orange seats.

Poverty (as I can well recall) is an earwig of the psyche; an infestation within. It allows not a moment's rest or leisure; it eats at you and demands the constant and repetitive suppression of need. Thus, in spite of the dignity it reveals of the individual (which arises from the forced removal of excess); poverty disfigures the person from within outward.

Despite whatever the rich priests and the comfortable prophets may tell us, poverty redeems neither the body's life nor the soul's. Yet it surrounds us all, every day; its impenetrable bars imprison us, no matter which side of them we may each be facing at the moment. For every person who must live amid want, the rest of us are that much further diminished.


To learn more about poverty and what can be done about it, try these sources:

Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty

World Vision: Ending Poverty

The Earth Institute at Columbia University

One: The Campaign to Make Poverty History


...the proportion of the poor who are very poor has risen. People are considered in deep poverty if they have half or less of the yearly income of those at the poverty line. In 2005 half the poverty line for a family of three was $7,788; for a family of four it was $9,985. (Try living on that.) According to the new report, 43.1 percent of poor people lived in that sort of deep poverty -- a record since 1975, when the government started assembling such statistics.

E. J. Dionne Jr.

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