If I were to ask those of you here and ask our viewers and readers on-line in whatever city you live in, “how many people are living unsheltered in your community?” Do you think that you could take a stab at it? Not the number of people living in homeless shelters, but how many are living under bridges, in sewers, in tents hidden in wooded areas, or even in city parks? It is a fluid number, of course. But for most of the year in the small town of Springfield, we estimate that there are about 500 people, mostly men, but some women and some children, sleeping hard outdoors.
I walk a lot, for exercise, so I walk down streets where there is typically almost no foot traffic, and I will hear them or see them, near major intersections, mostly near the places where they sit, holding signs, asking for donations.
Usually, when the police realize where they have established a camp, they will come and clear them out. The highway department will even cut down a grove of trees and mow the weeds to reveal the most popular hiding places.
We don’t usually hear about them until one is found dead, most commonly in the winter, from freezing. There are hundreds of them all around us, you would be surprised by how many live within a mile of your home, you just don’t see them, and I will add, even when you do see them, you probably do not consciously see them.
You don’t know them, you don’t want to get involved, you don’t want to spend energy on them, and, frankly, no one can care about everything. But I wonder, do you know how many elementary students are in our school system? Do you have any idea how many of them are Black, Native American, Latino, or are immigrants? What’s more, do you know how many of them woke up that morning in poverty?
I was not a fan of the 2009 animated sci-fi movie, Avatar, but there was one thing about it that continues to be memorable to me. The greetings that the indigenous people of the planet, Pandora, greeted one another saying, “I see you.”
In the more intense exchanges, it was intended to convey a reassurance, “I see you, I understand you, I get you, maybe even, I respect you, I love you, you are not alone.”
I’ve been a pastor since I was 22 years old. I can still remember driving up to my student church and seeing a sign painter, painting my name on the illuminated sign in front of the church in Russellville, KY.
I didn’t know that was going to happen. I hadn’t thought about it, that my name would be on stationary, business cards, signs, in newspaper stories and eventually, when they got around to inventing the internet, on websites, YouTube, iTunes, and lots of publications.
Within the church community, at least, I have an identity that I have carried every day of my adult life. People see me, recognize me, some may love me and some may despise me, but I know that I am seen in this context.
But my most common personal pastime is to go out to venues like this one in the evening to hear live music, usually to hear my friend Paul playing. So, I end up at a table with Josie and Paul comes to sit with us during breaks, but even when we go to hear another band, other musicians want to come up and talk to Paul and Josie.
Paul is one of the most gifted guitarists I know and everyone who either is or aspires to be a guitar player, wants to come and talk to him.
In that context, I am nobody. I can’t play an instrument, I can’t sing, and Sean can tell you, I can’t even clap in rhythm. I sit there silently stroking my beard as if I were a Greek philosopher, lost in thought, because, while I enjoy consuming music, I have nothing to offer.
But sitting with Paul and Josie is like sitting with British royalty in a nightclub. People come up to talk to them and will interrupt our conversation and sometimes literally lean over me to talk to them as if I were a piece of furniture. Sometimes entirely blocking my view of the stage for two, or three, or four songs.
And folks, I’m 6’2”. I’m not going to tell you how much I weigh but I assure you, I don’t have to jump around in the shower to get wet. But they don’t see me because, heck, I’m in a music venue and I am not a musician.
I keep thinking that someone might ask me to explain the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard to them, but it never comes up. No one seems to be innately curious about how Marcion influenced the final form of the New Testament. And the fact is, Marcion was a huge influence and the story is really interesting . . . never comes up.
I am often the center of attention here on Sunday morning, but if you see me sitting out there on a Thursday night, I’m just a bump on a log. I might get really frustrated if someone is talking through Paul’s performance of Blackbird, but, other people just don’t have to notice me on Thursdays.
So, the fact that you don’t know how many school children woke up in a homeless shelter, tried to find their homework and the backpack in time to get on the bus, is not much of a surprise. They don’t have college degrees. Their names are not featured on stationary, business signs, or websites.
They have not published books, bought a house in your neighborhood or even had a job. And, they tend to be short, really short, and some of them don’t even weigh as much as my right leg.
What’s more, the ones that are growing up in poverty have a very high chance of remaining in poverty for the rest of their lives. They are likely to never earn degrees or have their names painted on signs. They are not even likely to live as long as the children who didn’t grow up in poverty.
Now, you can define poverty in lots of different ways but if you just consider the percentage of kids in the Springfield School system who are on free and reduced lunches . . . that is a fair yardstick of poverty isn’t it? What percentage of our 12,000 kids would you guess are receiving free and reduced-price meals in school?
It would be a shame, wouldn’t it, if it was 1 in 10, here in the richest country in the world? But what if it is more than that? What if it is half of them? You don’t see them, unless they are members of your family, but there are thousands of them. And the truth is that 60% of the kids in this city are growing up in poverty . . . but folks, that’s just the average. More than 90% of the kids in this community and the communities in the general vicinity are growing up in poverty. 95% in one area.
Success in life is something of a race. That is how our competitive economy works. You have to compete. You have to be one of the best, if you want to get ahead. But in a real race, don’t all of the runners who are racing for the same finish line at least get to start on the same starting line? You know, if it is a 1000-yard dash but 60% of the kids start a half a mile back from the starting line, that’s not much of a race, is it?
Childhood poverty in America is nearly invisible to those who are not immediately familiar with it. School teachers know. Social workers know. Eventually, employers will know when they can’t find an employee who can read an instruction manual or make change at a drive through window.
But most of us never see these kids until their trajectory has been, if not written in stone, it is very near to being fully determined. There is no way to make up for a lost childhood. And poverty, if you've never been in it, I can tell you, is a form of violence and it puts stress on families that often lead to crime, substance abuse, mental illness, and domestic violence. These children often become parents while they are still children, and all too often due to no choice of their own.
Most of us have known young couples who were putting off having children until they can afford it. Which, in many cases means, they never have children. The United States doesn’t typically give new parents paid leave to be with their baby. Childcare options for the poor are typically pretty awful to non-existent. Only the poorest of the poor get access to healthcare.
We patch these problems with some after-school programs, some backpacks with canned food for them to take home on the weekends. We give kids in shelters a backpack with school supplies in them, that’s all helpful, but, have you ever had to put cardboard inside your shoes because there was a hole in the bottom of your shoes? Did you ever have to walk through the rain in shoes that just had cardboard in the bottom?
Can you imagine how it might change those kids lives if their parents were just getting a living wage or if, imagine this, the greater society just gave parents an extra financial shot in the arm every month?
Whenever I am trying to explain social ethics, I like to draw it down to a manageable size . . . think of a shipwreck on a tropical island with a hundred people on board and 20 of those 100 are little kids. How many of those 20 would you feed? How many would you educate? How many would be taken care of when they were sick? All of them, right? Because you would know their names. You would see them every day. You know their parents, and you wouldn’t dream of giving one of them a swimming pool and a pony and letting the other 19 go without clothes or shoes.
If we could just draw our communities down to a size where we could really see them, we wouldn’t tolerate what is going on every day in our own cities. It is hard to fix a traumatized childhood.
I stay mad about how children have been treated at our southern boarder, not just during the Trump administration but for years before that. Sure, Trump made a bad situation worse, but still, do we really have to have grades of childhood trauma? But you don’t have to go to Texas or Arizona to see children in traumatic circumstances.
As terrible as the Covid-19 pandemic has been, it has given to new Biden administration an opportunity to look around and see what really needs to be changed in this country. There have been stimulus checks for almost everyone, unemployment subsidies, Payroll Protection grants, and now there is this infrastructure bill that has tons of money in it to fix roads and bridges, to upgrade our power grid, to put in cyber protections for our water, gas, and electricity systems, but a lot of it isn’t traditional infrastructure. A lot of it is humanitarian.
Maybe it is because the first lady is a schoolteacher. I suspect that Jill Biden has schooled Joe Biden in some facts of life over the past few years. You may be aware that President Lyndon Johnson, for all of his failings, did what he did for the Civil Rights Movement, largely because he had started out in life as a public school teacher in a poor Texas school system and he had seen what child poverty looked like. He had seen them. He remembered their names.
Those of you who have listened to me for the past couple of years know what I cannot deny today that I had no confidence that Joe Biden would be a transformational president. I knew that he would be a lot better than the last guy but the old sneakers I wear to cut my grass would make a better president than ole whats-his-name. But Biden is turning out to be more progressive than I ever dreamed and this infrastructure bill, if it gets passed, will put Biden up on the stage next to Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal.
He has proposed to give parents a monthly check, that for a family with four children, would come to about $1000 a month. Not enough to live on. Not enough to make you want to have more kids just to get the money, but enough to lift 5 million children out of poverty and make life a lot better for the other 5 million, moving them closer to the starting line in the race that they are going to have to run in to survive.
This is not a unique stroke of genius. Tony Blair did this in Great Britain 20 years ago when he was Prime Minister. But no one has ever suggested anything like this for American children and I am not too proud to say that it is “about damn time.” Let the congregation say, “Amen.”
As cynical as we can be about government and corporations and the media, good things can still happen if enough of us get behind a really good idea and push – push like we really want to make it happen.
It isn’t perfect. I don’t know why people like us have received stimulus checks during the pandemic and then this infrastructure bill is just getting half of the children in poverty out of poverty….. I would have voted for getting 100% of the kids out of poverty before employed corpulent clerics got anything, but we must not allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good.
The stimulus bill, as proposed, does not have a very good chance of making it through the Senate but it has even less of a chance if we don’t speak up and support the humanitarian parts of this proposal.
I can speak to the ethics of this situation as a spiritual person but I can also speak to it as a patriot. There are no foreign powers, not Russia, not China or North Korea, nor terrorists, either foreign or domestic, that pose a greater threat to the future of America than income and capital disparity. The wealth gap in the United States will end this country if we don’t stop it and I know of no more effective way to do that than to pull children out of poverty and put then on the starting line with everyone else. Because, even if you can’t see them now, 20 years ago, you will want to see them sharing their gifts with our nation in science and technology, in medicine and government, in your neighborhood, and married into your family.
We have been forcing America’s potential to grow up in poverty and you and I both know that is nothing but mean to them and stupid for all of the rest of us. And now, we can start to change it. If, that is, we are tired of looking the other way.
Dr. Roger Ray