Tuesday, August 24, 2010

What is Poverty? William Stringfellow Answers...

William Stringfellow - lawyer, activist, lecturer and Episcopal lay theologian - moved to an apartment on 100th Street in Harlem in 1956 and set about the work of representing the residents of that depressed area of New York City. As he documented in his autobiography, My People is the Enemy, he made this move out of a sense of Christian duty to those among his fellow man who were suffering most, despite the numerous other opportunities he could have pursued in private practice or as part of a large firm.

During his time in Harlem, he was exposed to the severe poverty in which his friends, neighbors and clients were living, and which many today often choose to ignore - whether by averting their eyes and thus not seeing, or by contributing money and calling it a day, rather than rolling up their sleeves and jumping right in. Forty-four years have passed, but the circumstances which Stringfellow witnessed first-hand are as present today as ever.

And what is poverty? I think Stringfellow's summary answers that question beautifully - not in terms of the imagery, but in his writing style. As you read, I want you to ponder the poverty in your own neighborhood, town or city, and reflect on what you have done lately to help. What you see here isn't confined just to Harlem, or Mobile, or Washington, D.C. - it's anyplace where we really take the time to look and see.

"Poverty is a widow on welfare whose landlord cuts the heat, knowing that the winter will end before a complaint is processed. Poverty is a drug addict who steals from his own family or pawns the jacket off his back to get another 'fix.' Poverty is being evicted from a housing project because the project manager determines that the family is 'undesirable.' Poverty is a Puerto Rican shopkeeper whose store is stoned when he tries to relocate south of the 96th Street boundary of East Harlem. Poverty is an adolescent with a tested I.Q. of 130 who cannot read or write the English language well enough to get other than the most menial jobs. Poverty is the pay-off to a building inspector not to report violations of the building code. Poverty is a young couple who marry because that is the only way to get out of the tenements and into a project, and whose marriage fails, and who have neither the grounds for a divorce in New York nor the price for a divorce in another jurisdiction. Poverty is being awakened in the middle of the night by a welfare investigator who demands to search your apartment to be sure you are not cheating the taxpayers. Poverty is the incapacity to complain against the landlord because you can't afford to take a day off from your job or from minding the family to go to court. Poverty is a kid who wants to be adopted to escape from the slums but whom no one wants. Poverty is a boy whose father has thrown him out, a boy who needs a place to stay. Poverty is living in darkness after the electric current has been turned off as a fire hazard, and waiting for six or seven days until someone is sent to repair the obsolete wiring.

"Poverty is the enormous burden of waiting - waiting for hours for a doctor to examine a sick child at the hospital clinic, waiting for an interview with a social worker, waiting at the employment office, waiting in line for what the government ironically calls 'surplus' food, wiating for everything, everywhere you go.

"Poverty is the vulnerability to death in its crudest forms. Poverty is the relentless daily attrition of contending with the most primitive concerns of human existence: food and cleanliness and clothes and heat and housing and rest and play and work."


rdl said...

good post! so many people just don't get it - it blows my mind.

jen said...

My mom is 82 and was living on 100th and Lexington for many years before and during that time, she attended St Frances on 96th and Lex. and was married to my father there. Her mother died in childbirth because the doctor left the apartment without the proper after care (we assume that contributed to her death) Although they were poor and the Aunt who then raised was too an Irish immigrant, she says as a child she just didn't know it, never felt it.I think because food on the table really was the key to that, however it should be said mother didn't go past 11th grade before her need to contribute to the family income did arise. I guess she was one of the lucky ones!