Poverty USA

On Thanksgiving, it’s customary to evaluate your possessions, both spiritual and physical and to take some time to appreciate them. I have a wonderful wife of 22 years and a nice home. We share our home with a dog and 5 cats, all of which we’ve rescued from shelters. My parents are healthy (touch wood) and now happily retired to Florida, my sister is newly freed from the the constraints of a terrible marriage. My brother and his wife have a new daughter — a baby sister for their 2-year-old twins. My wife’s brothers are all in pretty good places financially and family-wise and my 15 nieces and nephews are all doing well. After 2 years of uncertainty about the future of the company I work for, things seem to be looking brighter. I’ve paid off all my credit card debt this year, I’ve lost 60 pounds and I feel much healthier. I am thankful for all of this.

So, of course, I feel strange about having so much when others have so little. While I sit down with my family for a nice Tofurky dinner, what will be the scene in the homes of the 34.6 million people in this country who are living in poverty?

I like the clarity of numbers. At Poverty USA, they have some of the clearest numeric descriptions of what it means to be poor in America today. I took their “Poverty Tour” and saw how the budget breaks down for a family of four living at the government’s “poverty line” pre-tax income of $18,392. I compared that with the $11,128 annual income for a person working at the minimum wage. I took a look at their “Poverty Map” and noted the states — which they depict in red — which are the poorest. Mississippi ranks first in the nation in overall poverty (19.9%), child poverty (26.7%) and senior poverty (18.8%) (Strangely enough, the map lists the rates for Washington, DC, but doesn’t rank the statistics for our government’s back yard. If it did, DC would be 1st in the nation in overall poverty: 20.2%, 1st in child poverty: 31.1%, and 3rd in senior poverty: 16.4%. The presence of all the rich old legislators and government functionaries is probably what bumped DC from 1st place in the senior poverty measure.)

Closer to home, the Maryland Food Bank has an eye-opening Flash interaction called “Hunger 101″. I chose a character and followed his scenario and see who is hungry and how difficult — impossible! — it is to obtain the minimums which EVERYONE in a rich country such as ours should be able to take for granted.

I took on the role of Bryan Jenkins, who is 38 years old. “He was recently laid-off at a high-profile technology company and has applied for unemployment. His wife Katie works as a substitute teacher, earning $1460 a month, but $300 goes to taxes. They have two children in elementary school. The car payment is $350 and the mortgage on the house is $700. His savings is depleted and he is struggling to make ends meet.” After paying the bills, Bryan/I had $15 to spend to provide the 51,800 calories our family needed to survive this month. He/I make too much money to qualify for food stamps, the soup kitchen was closed, the food bank was empty… what do you do? The numbers are TOO clear here.

I can donate* some money, and today, I am most thankful I can do that.

*To find a local food bank where you can donate, check out America’s Second Harvest.