When I was younger, my mom used to always scold my brother and me whenever we picked at our food at the dinner table. All parents, and especially recent immigrants, have their mechanisms to ensure that their children don’t waste a bite on their plate. Some threaten of future ills to come (each grain of rice wasted will equate to a freckle on your future spouse’s face!); others talk of revoking privileges (no TV until that bowl is empty!).
My mom tried something a little more drastic.
“Do you know how many kids there are who are starving in Africa right now? I can drive you downtown to see all the hungry homeless people, is that what you want?”
Call it harsh, but her methods worked. And more than that, her mealtime threat actually translated into a lesson in the concept of privilege, and consequently, poverty. Having food to eat wasn’t a given, necessarily. It was a luxury that a big part of the world’s population just didn’t have access to. Her words taught me that to know and understand poverty meant having to know and understand privilege. One is really not possible without the other.
The current recession is a testament to that fact. With an increasing number of formerly middle-class workers finding themselves in long-term unemployment binds, the definition of who belongs to the “haves” and the “have nots” has changed dramatically. In a New York Times article earlier this year, writer Peter S. Goodman introduced readers to the “new poor.”
And in a city like New York, the obvious contradictions are all the more emphasized because of the cramped proximity between the “haves” and the “have nots.” I think back often to my mom’s words whenever I find myself on a crowded subway and a man or woman dressed in rags, carrying rotting sacks of laundry, begins his or her speech.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t mean to disturb you today on your commute…”
The shame is obvious, but the need is even more acute.
“I’ve fallen on hard times and I don’t have any money to buy food to provide for me or my four children. If you have even a bit of spare change, I would really appreciate any kind of help.”
The tension in the air is palpable. Long-time New Yorkers don’t even finch from their position on the subway bench, flipping through the touch-screen pages of their iPads or clacking away on their Blackberries. Tourists look around nervously, unsure if the subway beggar is a safety threat to their small pack of children, their shopping bags, or especially to the purses sitting on their laps.
Nobody ever really reaches into their bags to dig up a wallet or a few small coins. More importantly, few people ever really reach out.
Poverty carries with it some pretty strong connotations, and as a result, we are often hesitant to directly help a fellow man in need, though we applaud those who dig very deep into their wallets and donate to charity. Poverty is something removed and unpleasant, something to be dealt with by a larger governing body, or more bluntly, the “haves.” With the aforementioned rising unemployment rates, an unfortunate side effect can be our numbness to others’ hardships as we begin to get down on ourselves and think of ourselves as the “have nots.”
The truth about poverty is that it is not somebody else’s problem. When even a small segment of our community, city, state, country, or even world, is suffering, we all feel the effects. The difficult part is mustering up the compassion, putting our own situation into perspective, and doing our small part to help remedy the situation. We can buy a homeless man a cup of coffee. Lighten our wallets and give some dollars or even a few cents to the war vets who’ve more than done their share to help the country. Or even just begin to educate ourselves about what it means to “have” and be privileged in this country.
Or even, by my mom’s suggestion, consider those less fortunate when faced with a few stray grains of rice.
Waste not, want not.