Apparently today is Blog Action Day and the blogging community is supposed to write about poverty. I’m always the last to know these things! I haven’t had time to prepare a properly researched piece on poverty, but here are some things you might find interesting.
Back when I was studying to be a Chemical Dependency Professional, one of the first things we learned was Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Within this hierarchy is the idea that the basic needs of any human being are physiological ones – sleep, shelter, water, etc. These provide a foundation upon which we are able to survive. Without these basic needs we become so focused on survival that we lose our ability to thrive.
As it relates to addiction, Maslow’s hierarchy tells us that we will be unable to help an addict overcome their substance abuse problem unless we’re able to meet some of these basic needs. If we expect an alcoholic to sober up, we need to ensure that he or she has water, food, shelter and physical health so that they can steer their energy towards becoming healthier in other ways. When someone is too busy looking for a place to sleep safely, for a bite to eat, they are less inclined to worry about making it to an AA meeting or maintaining their sobriety. It should also be noted that addicts who are not poverty stricken can easily become so as their habits worsen. Slowly their desire for the drugs erode their lives and ability to maintain the hierarchy, and many will spiral into poverty because the drug has gripped them so severely that they are able to do little else than find more ways to obtain it.
Here in Seattle we’ve begun a long discussion of homelessness and poverty. Recently, in response to our Mayor’s lack of funding for shelters and focus on homelessness, a group created a small tent city and dubbed it Nicklesville (our mayor’s name is Greg Nickels, the name is a play on the old Hooverville shanty towns built during the depression). At last count, our county had well over 3000 people living on the streets without adequate shelter. This year alone, 34 people have died of exposure to the elements or violence because they did not have a safe place to stay.
Of course, most of what I’ve mentioned here isn’t the real face of poverty in this city or nation. Those who are poverty-stricken aren’t just the people we see on the streets asking for money or the ones we see lining up at soup kitchens or shelter doors. People living in poverty can look just like you and I and, in our increasingly difficult financial crisis, they will grow in larger numbers. How many of us are just a paycheck away from losing our homes, from being able to put food on the table or pay for gas? I think that in the world’s most powerful and wealthy nation, where we are more fortunate than anyone else, it’s important for us to note that people living in poverty don’t only exist on the street corner or in third-world nations. We have a responsibility to the people we see every day, people who work two and three jobs, sometimes in our own homes, to make ends meet. As Americans we tend to look past these people, to ignore them or call them lazy, but that’s not good enough.
It’s not good enough to look at a man on the street asking for change and instead of pulling out a few bucks, we tell him to get a job. How high on the list do you think a job is going to be when you have an empty stomach or torn clothes. How important do you think it will be to get a job when you need to spend your time finding a doorway to sleep in that’ll keep the rain and harsh cold away? It’s easy, as people of good fortune, to look down at people with less than us and call them lazy. It’s easy to judge someone when you don’t know their situation or circumstances or how difficult it is to care about much when you have so little.
I can only imagine that with our economy on the decline, there will be more and more people living below the poverty line, seeking social services that our government is no longer willing or able to pay for. Somehow we can find the money to support other nations in their fights against disease and poverty, we can spend billions upon billions of dollars funding a war, we can inject 700 billion dollars into the economy to compensate for bad decision-making and greed but we aren’t able to find much else to provide enough shelter for people who so desperately need it. It seems like it’s time to rethink our nation’s priorities. If we really expect to remain a great country, if we want to call ourselves a nation of exceptionalism, we need to start thinking about the people in this country who aren’t wealthy, who don’t have a home of their own, who can’t meet their basic needs. We claim that anyone in America can be someone if they try, but we are so quick to take away the chance for many by not providing when people need help the most. That’s not exceptionalism to me.