No Outrage Over Poverty

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 …

 

 

Is Fancy Marketing Keeping America Overweight?

I often shake my head at the contradictions between what we as Americans hold as dear and what we market.

Being overweight in America is frowned upon; obesity is scorned. And yet, we are inundated with images of foods that are not good for us. Nothing looks better than a great big Big Mac, or French Fries. Sometimes, the jungles from the commercials follow me around like a shadow, because the tunes are catchy,designed to become anchored in our subconscious. Images on television are masterful at getting consumers to salivate at even the thought of something greasy, fatty, and salty.

The fast food industry has wreaked havoc in our busy lives. It is far easier, after a long and busy day, to go to a fast food restaurant, sit on our derrieres as we order our food at drive through. We don’t even have to exercise by walking to the counter if we don’t want to. While we hear that fatty food and greasy foods are not good for us, we see images on television of happy families eating pieces of fried chicken as they smile lovingly at each other.

And portion control? Forget it! We have gotten used to enormous portions of the worst things possible. We prefer restaurants where we can boast of how much we get on our orders.  In a prosperous culture, we behave badly; we have become gluttonous, wanting more and more, or maybe even needing more and more, in order to be satisfied.

The saddest reality about all of this is that good, healthy food is so expensive, and so the people who have the least resources use what little money they have on food that is killing them. The rates of heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension in African-American communities are way too high, and yet, with the paucity of good supermarkets in those neighborhoods, and the lack of money to buy healthy food, fast food is often the only food many urban residents, children and adults, have ready access to.

We have become conditioned to wanting fatty, greasy, salty food. I have found that when I say I’m hungry, what I’m saying is that my body is craving something salty or greasy.  I give in sometimes when I feel like that, but I find it interesting that my “hunger” is rarely for an apple or a handful of walnuts.

My pull is fatty greasy salty food, but some give in to desire for big-time carbohydrates, things like bread, cake, cookies. It is so easy to sit in front of a television and eat an entire package of Oreos, or way too many Hostess Twinkies. And commercial ads make sure we don’t forget how good those goodies are!

A pair of In-N-Out cheeseburgers.
Image via Wikipedia

It is a known fact that what people see, they want. When people saw Farrah Fawcett‘s haircut, they wanted it. Whenever they see something that Michelle Obama or Kate Middleton wear that they like, they want it. We want hamburgers and fries because we see them in these masterful ads. What if the ads changed, and showed, instead, more people reaching for a juicy apple or a handful of cherries, in the artful ways that advertising geniuses do in order to lure consumers to their products?

The country would be healthier; health care costs might drastically drop. We could have smaller government and less government spending, don’t you think?

This morning on the Today Show I saw a little kid who was celebrating his birthday, I think his 8th. He held a sign that said “I love French fries.” He had on ear muffs that were “French fries” over each ear.

He was cute, but he was very young…and overweight.

We have to do better.

A candid observation …