Our Eyes Were Opened


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What an Exercise!

At Tuesday evening’s Straight Talk SC: Can’t Win for Losing sponsored by the Riley Institute and the Osher Life Long Learning Institute at Furman University, Dr. Kyle Longest led a powerful discussion about how structural constraints impact decisions and life outcomes. For example, when a single mother with a seven-year-old and a two-year –old who works full-time for minimum wage needs housing, she’s likely going to want a two-bedroom apartment. However the Fair Market Rate rent in SC for a 2-bedroom apartment is currently $756, which is not affordable on a monthly income of $1276 gross. So hopefully she can find a place for about $400-$450 a month. However, that means she is likely living in a substandard neighborhood which may mean her children could be in a dangerous environment. Also if she gets a two-bedroom, then two people are going to sleep in the same room. With a two-year-old child in the household, sharing a room means that someone is likely not to get a good night’s sleep. If the seven-year-old does not sleep, then school work may suffer. If mom does not get adequate sleep, she may not perform on her job well and end up losing her employment. The structural constraints impact her decisions.
Dr. Longest confronted the fallacy that welfare is the answer. He reminded everyone that TANF, Temporary Need to Needy Families, has a sixty month life time limit. He also demonstrated that switching in the late 1990s from the former welfare program known as AFDC, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, did not accomplish what its proponents had hoped. In 1994/1995, there were 118,700 poor people in South Carolina. Of that number approximately 49,800 received AFDC, or about 42%. In 2010/2011, in SC there were about 135,000 people living below the federal poverty guidelines. Of those, 19,800 received TANF, or 15 percent. The maximum of TANF benefits is $2600 a year, assuming there is no income. As soon as a person earns more than $1412 a month, the benefits decrease incrementally. Once again, structural constraints affect decisions. The underlying assumption is that if one works, one is not in poverty. However, with the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, a person working forty hours a week, 52 weeks a year, earns $15,080. The federal poverty guideline for a family of three is $19,790. So our single mom with two children is still below the poverty line. AND… assuming a minimum wage worker works 40 hours a week and 52 weeks a year may be a false assumption.
So in groups of two-three people on Tuesday evening, we designed a budget for our mom. My group realized quickly there was not enough money for housing, utilities, transportation, food (even with food stamps now known as SNAP), and childcare. We didn’t even try to budget for healthcare, clothing, phone, school supplies, or entertainment.
Those in my group have worked in poverty issues for many years so we knew where the exercise was taking us. What was fascinating was to listen to the whispered comments around us: “Use public transportation.” (The person making the comment has obviously not used the existing public transportation as the only source of getting around! ) “Buy cheap food, ie processed food.” (Obesity? Poor nutrition? Health problems?) These were just a few comments.
When we are willing to put ourselves in the situations that some of our neighbors live in, we realize that we may probably make many of the same decisions they make. We realize that the structure makes pulling out of poverty EXTREMELY difficult for many.


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This house is currently on the poverty tour. If you look closely, you will see the letter D spray painted in two different places. This means that the house will be demolished. This is a good news and a bad news scenario. The good news is that a blighted house will be torn down. The bad news is that this house may be the only house that someone can afford. Or the person may not be able to sign a long term lease due to mental illness, a criminal background, or poor credit. The owner of this house might be willing to rent without requiring a long term lease!  When communities tear down blighted houses that have been homes to someone, they need to plan for a caring and compassionate way to fill that gap. Housing First and tiny homes are two such options.  demolition house


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Changing the World

John-Paul Flintoff, author of How to Change the World, was interviewed in the March/April 2013 issue of The Optimist. He had been active in world changing organizations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. One day it came to him that as important as his work there had been, it was more important to be a good neighbor. In fact, being a good neighbor made him a better campaigner for the organizations in which he was involved.
John-Paul decided to invite a neighbor over to watch a documentary about a topic he knew she was interested in. She came. Three weeks later another neighbor came to her house and installed solar panels on her roof. At that point, John-Paul said he realized, “Wow, this is powerful stuff!”
Then he and his daughter went around the neighborhood delivering apples because their tree had produced more than his family needed. He got to meet a lot of very nice people. Then he planted more than enough tomato plants so he could share tomatoes. He began to notice that his neighbors were interested in providing food for themselves.
I like this story because it demonstrates the power of sharing and caring. There are people in my community who intentionally move into low income neighborhoods so they can be good neighbors and help build on the community strengths that are already there. They move in not to gentrify, not to flip houses, but to be part of community. They go in without agendas other than to be good neighbors.
We all can do that without having to move from where we live. We can meet our neighbors. As I write this, I am acutely aware of how much better my husband is at being a good neighbor. Because he walks our black Labrador, Moses, he knows the neighbors as well as the name of their dogs. I, on the other hand, know my computer much better than the people across the street.
Maybe we can all decide we will change the world, one apple, one tomato, one smile, one small gesture at a time. We may not really change the world but we will change ourselves and possibly one little corner of the world.


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Happy Endings

My husband loves to go to the grocery store. I do not. However, my husband worked it out with the store manager that I can take as many magazines from the shelves as I choose to the café area and read them while he shops. That way my husband has the leisurely shopping experience he values and I find interesting ideas in all the craft and decorating magazines.
I recently accompanied my husband to the grocery store. As I walked to the magazine display, I looked to my left and saw a woman checking out at the self-service area. Even as I glanced at her, I thought That looks like Alice (named changed.) But I wasn’t sure so I took a few more steps, thinking I could just ignore the person. But then I thought, No, that is Alice…I think.
I walked over to the woman and said, “Alice?” She said, “Yes” and looked at me with a puzzled expression.
I said, “I’m Beth.”
Her face broke into a big grin which was followed by a big hug.
I first met Alice in the early 1990s while I was executive director at United Ministries. She was in a program that I began that required a woman to be two of these four things: homeless, pregnant, prostitute, and/or addict. Alice fit three of the categories. Through the years, Alice came in and out of United Ministries depending on whether her life was falling apart or not. She was dismissed from one program in the agency because she stole from it. She lived in a motel across the street from United Ministries until the building was torn down. United Ministries staff tried to help her find other housing but her intense drug usage made that impossible.
I lost track of Alice until one day when she and I happened to be in United Ministries’ lobby at the same time. We hugged and I learned of her vastly improved situation. She had gotten involved with Gateway House, a clubhouse model for people with mental illness. Now, a couple of years later when I saw her again in the grocery store and asked her what she was doing these days, she proudly said, “I’m at Gateway House. It’s been seven years now. That’s my home.”
What a delightful outcome for Alice. Some the women who were in that long ago program have since died. Others have ridden the roller coaster of addiction with its ups and downs. Others were able to turn their lives around.
Alice was the second of the women in that original group whom I’d seen that week. The first one, too, proudly shared where she was working. She looked beautiful to me. What a blessing to know that these two delightful people have been able to change their lives and are at now happy with who they’ve become!


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Synchronicity

I am a great believer in the idea that when the time is right for something to happen, things fall into place. For me as a faithful Christian, I believe this meets the ideas that God is already working on with us. Others may credit this kind of synchronicity to a divine being of another name, the universe, or the stars being aligned.
Yesterday I had such an experience. I met with a very enthusiastic and knowledgeable college student and an architect who is known especially for her passion for low income housing and creative land use and design . They showed me an idea they are working on. We began to discuss all kinds of positive ideas generated by the work they have already done. I asked a number of questions. At one point, I suggested other people they needed to contact who were especially gifted or knowledgeable in certain aspects of their plan.
I mentioned one person several times because of his experience and passion in several of the areas they are dreaming about. Who should come walking by the room where we were meeting but this guy! He saw me through the window of the door and poked his head in to say hello. I immediately jumped up, all smiles, hugged him, and said, “You know the guy I was talking about that you should meet? This is the guy!!!” Everybody said their names and realized their paths had crossed in the past. The two planners showed him briefly their idea and he indeed is very interested in their concepts. The three of them will get together later for more conversation.
When the project gets further along, I’ll share with you what exciting and paradigm changing thing this project is. For now, the two “instigators” are talking with people and sharing their ideas.
Synchronicity…I love it!


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Charity and Justice

William Sloane Coffin, noted activist minister now deceased, said, “Had I but one wish for all the churches of America today, I think it would be that they come to see the difference between charity and justice. Charity is a matter of personal attributes; justice is a matter of public policy. Charity seeks to alleviate the worst effects of injustices; justice seeks to eliminate the causes of it. Charity in no way affects the status quo, which is why charity is so popular in middle-class churches, while justice leads inevitably to political confrontations.”

Let justice roll down like waters. Charity is good…in its place. But justice…now justice is a wonderful and awesome thing.


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Moving Involuntarily

When families must move involuntarily, all kinds of issues happen, especially when compared with families who moved voluntarily in the previous year.
Families may be forced to move for a variety of reasons. There may be a change in the household through marriage, separation, or divorce. A family may be unable to pay their housing costs because of job loss, increased rent, or illness. The household may have no family member or friend to whom they can turn for intermediate help. In other words, they have no safety net. Some families may have to move for transportation issues in order to be closer to work. Others are forced to move because the landlord has been cited for code violations and the house is no longer safe for residents. This may include lead paint or mold.

When families must move involuntarily, there is a greater likelihood that they have less than a high school diploma when compared with families that move voluntarily or do not move. A higher percentage of involuntary movers have experienced a job loss or poor physical or mental health when compared with voluntary or non-movers. Involuntary movers have significantly higher probability of having a substance abuse problem or experiencing domestic violence than voluntary movers.

The children of involuntary movers are almost twice as likely as voluntary movers to have excessive absences from school as well as in the frequency of their absences.

*The background for this posting comes from Rebecca Cohen and Keith Wardrip, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” a report from the Center for Housing Policy and MacArthur Foundation, Feb. 2011.

For a study guide to help you learn more about the effects of frequent moving on children, see Angelika’s Journal available at oureyeswereopened.org, avenidabooks.com, Fiction Addiction, and at online retailers.