There are so many misconceptions about poverty. That came to light several times in the past week and pushed me to write this post.
-- Our cities are the sole problems. The New York Times ran a fine piece this morning about the growth of poverty in the suburbs. Forget leafy, green cloisters with a Lexus in every driveway; increasingly, statistics show, wrenching social issues are the domain of suburban communities. Food pantries are growing, demand for basic needs is soaring (without the public transportation infrastructure to help). Check out the data in that story -- poverty is now the big issue in suburbia.
Need more evidence? Spend a day with me on the south side of Atlanta, where more than 97 percent of the students at Bear Creek Middle School (where we launched our Power of Half Schools) are on free or reduced lunch. Kids living in cars; kids without clothing or enough to eat. All surrounded by trees and houses (many of which are in foreclosure).
-- The poor are inept. In Jacksonville last week, at a marvelous event hosted by Community Connections, a man approached me after my speech. His question, couched in code word after code word, was essentially this: "Don't you think the stupid people of Africa would be better off if some American entrepreneurs moved in to fix their problems? After all, if the Africans had the solutions, wouldn't they have already done them?"
I stayed calm and tried to explain that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in the most impoverished places on the planet. The problem isn't lack of creativity or desire, but access to what's needed to create a better future: capital; education, especially for girls and women; proper health care and nutrition; access to opportunity; and even a belief that life can be better. In fact, I explained to this man, the most creative, innovative people I've met are probably poor. After all, they make due with almost nothing.
-- The poor are lazy souls just waiting for another handout. Damn, do I grow weary of this one. From my work at Atlanta Habitat for Humanity and Year Up Atlanta to our family's involvement with The Hunger Project, I've met person after person who wants to work her or his tail off. Mothers working two jobs and raising families. Grandmothers who are cashiers by day and child-care providers to their grandkids by night. When you grow up on the other side of the opportunity divide, without emphasis on education or a safe place to live, it's pretty darn hard to make the leap across that divide.
In the end, my conclusion is simple: Poor people and rich people want the same things. They want a chance to wake up tomorrow morning and believe things can be better for their families. They want to help create a better world for their kids and grandkids. They want to be fairly compensated and fairly respected for what their work.
So the sign being passed around Facebook this week, struck me:
"Sometimes I want to ask God why He allows poverty and injustice in this world when He could do something about it, but I'm afraid he might ask me the same question."
Let's get working on this together with those ready to help themselves.