Deep Poverty

A grandmother at UrbanPromise was bragging on her granddaughter. “Megan turned on the electricity for her mother. I’m so proud of her!” “What do you mean?” I asked, picturing Megan in the basement flipping the fuse box. “She used her work money to pay the electric bill so they could have light in the house again!”

It’s been a little over a year since I left a comfortable family practice in suburban Cherry Hill to start a wellness center at UrbanPromise Ministries in Camden, NJ. I myself am a product of tony, wealthy Haddonfield, where I continue to reside. My ride to work takes maybe 20 minutes and yet I might as well be traveling to another country. Stories like the one above continue to catch me off guard. Megan is 17 years old, a senior, and works at the mall, just as many teens I know have, including my daughter. The difference is, the suburban teens by and large spend their money on clothes, electronics and other niceties. They aren’t paying the bills at home. And Megan is one of the lucky ones – her grandmother lives across the street, providing a place of refuge when Megan’s mom runs out of food or doesn’t have heat. It’s not that simple for many of our families.

Kids come to school hungry. Homes don’t have furniture. Clothes aren’t always clean because there is no money for the Laundromat. Older siblings are often in charge as single parents, usually moms, are out working shifts – and multiple generations live in one small row home, leaving no room for quiet. Homework is a challenge when there are kids everywhere, your stomach is growling and you wonder if the loud shouting outside will lead to gunfire. Add drug use by someone in the family, and maybe a tablespoon of mental illness and you have the perfect recipe for toxic stress, which is defined as chronic and persistent stress that overwhelms one’s coping mechanisms.

Now think about what will happen come November 1, tomorrow, when food stamp money is cut. Did you know that 1 in 5 Americans rely on food stamps? A family of 4 is going to lose about $36 per month. For those in deep poverty that will mean going without 5 entire meals every week. For everyone. For the 5 year old who doesn’t understand. Already we have families who speak of putting kids to bed early to minimize the hunger pains. I am dreading tomorrow for our families.

Places like UrbanPromise are trying to make a difference. We are refurbishing our Spirit Building on 36th street near Federal, where we will have a professional kitchen, cafeteria and food pantry. But non-profits cannot meet all the needs. People are going to go hungry. I know when I am hungry my patience wanes and my temper is more likely to flare. What is perhaps most disturbing to me is that when kids are chronically stressed – by hunger, by angry parents, by witnessing violence – it actually impacts their brain development, not to mention their metabolism and immune systems. And unaddressed, the effects carry on through adulthood. People who experience lots of trauma in childhood are likely to die 20 years – YEARS! – earlier than those who don’t. And you can’t tell me that doesn’t cost society a lot of money.

We can choose to make a difference. If you believe, like I do, that everyone is connected (ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee), then the time is now to support our poor. You can begin by supporting organizations that feed the poor; but more importantly you can influence your legislators who make the laws affecting the poor. We need compassion to return. We need sense to return. So eventually we can focus on preventing trauma and toxic stress, instead of mediating it.

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