Last month, I volunteered a few Sunday morning hours at Cradles to Crayons, an organization dedicated to helping Massachusetts families in need. My wife, son and in-laws were also there, filling large bags full of donated clothing, toys, and books for these families. We were invited to volunteer in response to the recent death of a family friend, who died much too young. It was a fulfilling experience, but in retrospect our efforts did not even begin to deal seriously with scourge of poverty experienced by many citizens of this state. According to the Cradles to Crayons website, “…each year, there are more than 100,000 Massachusetts children under 18 who experience poverty. And on any given night, over 1,200 families will be staying in publicly funded family shelters in Massachusetts.”
I tend to see problems in a national and global perspective. Why does poverty continue to grow in this state and within this country as we continue to tout our economy as the strongest in the world? Drive through some of the suburbs of Boston and you will see wealth on an impressive scale that will make you quickly forget the difficult lives lived by people only a few miles away in Boston and in many suburban communities. In affluent America, there are roughly two types of people: those who take the opportunities presented to them for granted and those who will never see any substantial opportunities offered them in their lifetimes.
A nation is judged by its priorities. Will we help those in need or will we ignore them? Will we continue to build communities that are essentially air-tight pockets of prosperity, made up of people who look and think like ourselves, that give us the excuse not to deal with the poverty that is allowed to persist on such a scale? Children living in shelters? Children without adequate access to nutritious food? Children who go to schools that are increasingly being denied the funding necessary to produce productive citizens? This is considered acceptable?
Perhaps our priorities can be traced back to the development of the American psyche, when the myth was forged that anyone can make it in this country as long as they have the ambition and willingness to work hard. This sentiment was distorted by President Ronald Reagan, who openly declared that the poor deserved their condition because their lack of morals prevented them from accepting the unique American work ethic. The Tea Party movement has made this sentiment the cornerstone of their movement, combining a hysterical fear of the government with a racism that pits “hard-working” Americans (read: whites) against those who “milk” the system through government programs (read: people of color). I believe that the rugged individualism ideal in American culture has been misunderstood. In centuries past, farmers helped their neighbors bring in their crops; workers joined together to make sure that their pay and working conditions were fair. There was little of the hypocrisy of the morality police of today who deny that others deserve help while celebrating selfish materialism.
American priorities nationally and internationally? We bailed out the banks and allowed them to make record profits while refusing to give Americans access to much-needed credit, the supposed purpose of the bailout. We spend billions of dollars each month to fight “forever wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq, the results of which will be years of high deficits and even less for those in need in this country. The supposed health care “reform” passed this year will force Americans to purchase private health insurance, which will most likely mean immense profits for that industry and high premiums for average citizens. President Obama, however, believes that this bill will solve the problem of Americans selling their houses to pay medical bills and will allow for better access to health care. We’ll see, but I’m certainly skeptical about this notion.
How to change the nation’s priorities? I believe that government has the resources to help relieve poverty, as it has in the past (the New Deal and establishment of Medicare are just two examples), but it appears that Democrats and Republicans are more invested in making sure that corporate interests on Wall Street and elsewhere have their day in the sun. Perhaps the battle against poverty will continue under the auspices of organizations like Cradles to Crayons that provide a desperate lifeline to thousands of people. They deserve our unconditional support.