I remember it as clear as if it was yesterday even though it was close to forty years ago now. I can see myself standing in the kitchen of my second-floor subsidized block apartment. I had grown weary of the monthly drive several towns over to the county Social Security Administration office where I would justify my worthiness to receive food stamps. There I would present my tallied income from waitressing at a local breakfast and lunch diner, the morning paper route, and the late afternoon cashiering at the local Stop & Shop. Should the varying hours and tips total anything over the designated amount I would lose the privilege regardless of the fact that it was never equivalent to or greater than what the subsidy provided. I decided that I wasn’t going to do it any longer, determined that I would manage, we would get by. I stepped out in faith that day because I knew I had the support of an incredible circle of friends who lived a somewhat collective alternative existence. We cared for one another and our world. I was one of the fortunate ones.
My story is, sadly, not unique or outdated. The poverty line, a product of the 50’s and 60’s and LBJ’s administration, was created as a means to determine what was the minimum necessary for a family to survive, so that some measure of assistance could be offered. And while our economy has had its ups and downs since then and the cost of living has increased significantly, the line itself has barely moved or if it has it has not done so in ways proportionate to the times. In 2021 a family of six needed to earn less than $35,580/year in order to qualify for food stamps.
In January I listened to a piece on NPR about this topic. It highlighted a family whose income totaled $30K at best pre-pandemic. The woman who spoke – her name was Violet – shared that she was disabled and worked part-time, about fifteen hours per week, with no benefits, earning $17.50/hour – so about $13K/year. Her husband worked and earned about $17K per year. They had been receiving food stamps for four years and once their income exceeded $20 over the limit, they were cut off, even though the twenty dollars was not equivalent to the assistance amount they were getting. I am not surprised – more disappointed than anything else – that this is still the case after so much time.
The guests that day on the broadcast were Mark Robert Rank, a Washington University professor and author of the book, “Poorly Understood: What America Gets Wrong About Poverty” and head of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, Amy Glasmeier. Together they laid out some of the history and the myths surrounding poverty in our country and provided a compelling argument for a paradigm shift when it comes to this subject. The real truth is that here in the US sixty-five percent of us will experience one year below the poverty line between the ages of twenty and seventy-five, and that 75% will experience significant impoverishment. The truth is that poverty is not an inner city problem, that the majority of the poor in the US are white, that hard work is not enough and that agency is constrained for those with fewer resources. What we suffer from here is not so much insufficient funds to put food on our tables, but instead we impoverished of support. What we need is a system that seeks to provide for the wellbeing of all of our people.
This idea of an absolute line, an amount that designates services to those who fall below it in income and those who earn any amount over it lose access, what they referred to as the “cliff effect,” is not realistic. We are not thinking this through. In most developed countries such as in Europe there is a relative definition of poverty that puts people’s needs as a priority. It is assumed that everyone should get some level of assistance in order to bring equity, that no one should be unfed or unhoused, that it is a matter of basic human rights.
Here in America we view poverty through the lens of individualism and promote the idea that anyone can be successful if they simply work hard enough. We have developed a system that creates the deserving and the undeserving poor in our country. Rank likens it to a game of musical chairs which inevitably produces losers – those who have no seat. It places blame on those who don’t have enough and a state of social disenfranchisement with its accompanying lack of freedom and restrictions on ability and activity. What we need instead is to look at our system overall in a more wholistic and textured way that reveals what is really going on in people’s lives. Violet and her family has decided to take up subsistence farming to offset their food costs, but should they have to?
Coretta Scott King, in our reading this morning, asks us to use a lens of caring and compassion in our policy development. She talks about the Beloved Community having more to do with our hearts and minds than with numbers and lines drawn in the sand. It is about our values. These values are not anything new or unique in our world. In fact, in almost all the materials I read in preparation for today’s sermon I found the same principles alluded to. Indigenous scholar and activist, Randy Woodley, talks about “the harmony way” as being imbedded in all indigenous cultures. The principle values of respect and generosity, expressed through hospitality, ensure the care of everyone’s needs, suggesting that how we care for the least provided for among us says something about the heart of who we are. What does the way we define and manage poverty her say about our hearts, our values as a people?
It is apparently counter-cultural to think in more communitarian terms. But I hear these sentiments echoed in our Principles as Unitarian Universalists – respect, equity, compassion, the interconnectedness of people and planet that asks us to reconsider how we structure our societies. These ideas were important enough to us to put them in our mission statement – the nurturance of inclusivity, seeking after equity and justice, creating freedom. This is an action statement. As much as we love to refer to all of this as aspirational, and as I quoted the Rev. Mykal Slack last time I was with you, Unitarian Universalism is happening where these things are being acted out in real time, not some hoped for thing in a thought bubble above our heads. Wendell Berry, in our meditation today, begins his poem with perhaps the biggest little word we may know. He says, “if.” If we have the wisdom to survive, to stand, to renew, to enrich. It is a call to action filled with hardship, but also possibility. And you know how much I love a good reference to possibility!
So what are we to do? I read about new movements involving shared existence in neighborhoods where things like washers and dryers and lawn mowers were owned communally, each family supplying a piece of the various necessities, a system of shared resources good for the people and the earth. And I read about the Hope Credit Union which had its origins in rural North Carolina back in the days when white run banks would not serve the black community. What began in the tithing room of a local church has grown to twenty-three branches which have generated more than $3.6 billion in financing in the Mississippi Delta and deep South. It made a way through the entrenched generational poverty and institutional discrimination that limits opportunity, providing loans to black community members making home ownership and business start-ups a possibility, noting that the imbalance of ownership and assets is a real barrier to mutual prosperity. Mutuality. The give and take of living that entitles all who participate.
Part of the work of this endeavor is grounded in true reparations. Sometimes we think of reparations as digging up historical information on individuals our ancestors may have harmed and making monetary peace with their progeny in the present. This approach does little to create the much called for systemic shifts we are looking for. Two major corporations who had made promises to redistribute or invest capital, resources and land to Black-owned businesses and organizations in the past couple of years have invested in Hope Credit Union to the tune of $54 million. By redirecting investments in this way, toward organizations aligned with racial and economic justice, they are reshaping the definition of reparations. It asks what a commitment to racial justice looks like and suggests that if such a commitment exists for me, my next question is, “What should be happening with my giving and my investing?” When you support an organization that is providing a way forward for people of color you are making an investment in their future that will ultimately shift the paradigm. There is a tipping point.
We don’t have millions to invest, that’s for sure! But we may have opportunities on the horizon if we pay attention. Even something as simple as our monthly community outreach has the potential to be a part of the reparations picture here on the Cape, to be reparative in nature.
One more story. Episcopal priest, Becca Stevens, shares having opened a home for five women survivors of trafficking, prostitution and addiction over twenty-five years ago – a place to live for free for two years – a sanctuary. Thistle Farm now has thirty global partners employing over 1600 women and a mission to be a global movement for women’s freedom. She shares that it initially seemed silly to think that by starting a small community they could be part of changing the world, but says now that it seems ridiculous to think that the world will change if we don’t do something, no matter how small.
“We have to do small things and believe a big difference is coming,” she says, “It’s like the miraculous drops of water that seep through mountain limestone. They gather themselves into springs that flow into creeks that merge into rivers that find their way to oceans. Our work is to envision the drops as oceans. We do our small parts and know a powerful ocean of love and compassion is downstream. Each small gesture can lead to liberation. The bravest thing we can do in this world is not cling to old ideas or fear of judgment, but step out and just do something for love’s sake.”[i]
We will see how all this plays out for us, how our values and mission are both served and serve the wider community. It begs deeper questions about what we truly value, about what our own fears might be, about how clinging to the past may get in the way of real progress.
Today’s service is an invitation to each of us to take a deeper dive into the realities of poverty in our nation and in our communities. It is an invitation to each of us to re-examine our values and to consider how we can align ourselves more fully with what really matters to us; an invitation into the kind of self-examination required to free us up and allow us to be part of our changing communities and world. It is a reminder that our actions often do speak louder than our words and that by choosing how we commit ourselves we are saying something about who we are as persons and as a people. How can you use your life to redefine poverty?
Blessed be and Amen.
Rev. Tracy Johnson
UUMH Chatham, July 17, 2022
[i] Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations from the Center for Action and Contemplation, “Starting Small”, July 14, 2022.