How come it seems like nobody gets outraged about poverty in the United States?
I ask the question on the heels of the outrage expressed by Catholic bishops over the Obama administration’s policy that would have required Catholic institutions (churches excepted) to cover birth control in the health insurance coverage for their employees. Catholic bishops and others protested, calling the requirement an assault on religious freedom.
The furor has somewhat died down, as President Obama has announced a compromise that will require insurance companies to require contraceptive coverage directly to women. While some are skeptical of the new policy, others say the compromise is on target.
But I found myself shaking in my boots as I wondered why there seems to be so little outrage about poverty in this country? In the United States, there are 46 million people who are officially “poor.” Marian Wright Edelman, president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, wrote this week that the disparity between rich and poor is making hunger in America more and more real for more and more people; for as many as 14 million children, free food programs provide some with the only food they get. She reminded readers that hunger due to extreme poverty has been an American reality for a long time by recalling a visit Robert Kennedy made to the Mississippi Delta in the 60s where he saw for himself children who were literally starving. Ironically, today, while some children are becoming obese, many others are losing weight not because they want to, but because they do not have enough food to eat.
One thing is clear: we as humans tend not to empathize with the plights of people unless we see with our own eyes what people are going through. The stark pictures of people’s suffering after Hurricane Katrina mobilized the nation and the world to do something; in the 60s, the nation and world, again, were both outraged and provided the impetus for Washington to do something. When I have visited tropical islands, West and South Africa, my privileges as a tourist seemed less palatable after I traveled into the territory beyond the posh hotels, including the shanty towns in Cape Town, South Africa, and saw how awful living conditions were for so many of the people.
The lack of a deafening outrage from religious and non-religious leaders makes me wonder if people really know how bad poverty is in America, and how many it is affecting. Sabrina Tavernise wrote in Friday’s The New York Times that poverty is affecting education as well. While the big gap in educational achievement used to be that between white and black children, Tavernise wrote that “the achievement gap between rich and poor children is double that between black and white children according to a study done by a Stanford University sociologist.”
We already know that poverty has resulted in people not being able to get health care, which was a major impetus for the push for health care reform. In this, the richest nation in the world, people are dying from illnesses that are treatable. Just last month, I learned of a woman who contracted a cold which didn’t get better, but the woman couldn’t go to a doctor because she had no health care, though she was a full time employee at a fast food restaurant. Her cold developed into something more serious, landing her in an emergency room, then in intensive care. She died after two weeks on a respirator.
How come there are no religious leaders, no political leaders – somebody – screaming about poverty in America?
A person attending my church one time took me to task for talking about poverty. Her statement still troubles me. “You are wrong to talk about poverty,” she said. “The Bible says that the poor will always be with us. There are supposed to be poor people.”
I was stunned at her comment. It is true that in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John, Jesus says, “The poor you will always have with you, and you can always help them, but you will not always have me.” The statement came after a woman came to anoint him with expensive oil from an alabaster box. Those surrounding Jesus were angry at the apparent waste of the oil. Some in Jesus’ presence said that the ointment could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Apparently the oil the woman used was so precious that it could have been sold for 300 denarii! (One denarius is said to be worth about $20)
Were the oil that valuable, I rather doubt money garnered from its sale would have been given to the poor …but the point is, the woman who approached me had apparently read that scripture to mean that there are supposed to be poor people.
Interestingly, she didn’t mention Deuteronomy 15:11 where it says that there will be poor people and therefore “I command you to be open-handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.”
There is nothing fun about being poor; it is far easier to avoid the poor sections of town, and to complain that the poor are poor because they want to be, that they are lazy and want to live off the wages of others. It is as easy to do that as it is to go to Cancun and stay protectively cooped up in the luxury hotel and banish the real world out of our minds.
But the luxury hotels are not the norm. The people who serve us in the luxury hotels and on the cruise ships, many of them, are horribly poor. While they serve us the best of foods, many have little to eat themselves.
Why isn’t there more outrage about poverty? It is OK for the Catholic bishops to be outraged about contraception and a perceived imposition of a federal policy on religious liberty, but where are their collective voices – in fact, where are the collective voices of religious leaders, period, on the subject of poverty?
It seems we have it confused; we honor and reach for prosperity. The poor, who should have a voice through us, are ignored largely because of us.
A candid observation …