Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Cycle of Poverty in the Local Richmond Community

Peace Forum February 2, 2012
By Valerie Hurwitz

Laura Arendt, third-year Bethany Seminary student, spoke Thursday, February at Peace Forum about Open Arms Ministry. OAM is a non-profit that we’ve talked about on the blog before. They provide emergency assistance for people in the Richmond area, both from their own funds and through coordinating funds local churches have for charity. I won’t repeat the detail that the earlier post contains, but please read it if you’re curious to learn more.

Laura’s talk was part logistical information and part theological reflection. She talked about the cycle of poverty, an institutional web making it unlikely that people in poverty will be able to change their educational and financial position significantly in life. In Wayne County, 40% of the school-age children live below the poverty line, #2 in the state. According to Laura, however, the primary need is not financial but personal. People coming into OAM and want someone to listen and validate the struggles they’ve been through. There is a feeling that the rest of the Richmond community, Earlham College, and local Christians have no idea what people in poverty are going through.

There is the tendency to make the poor fit into stereotypes: lazy, unmotivated, etc. Laura told two stories that exemplify the type of person she sees. One was a grandmother with 6 other people living in her household, including an infant and a toddler. She is the only one with any income coming in. The second was a man who came in with his 17-year-old son. They were homeless, but the man had several job interviews lined up. (If you want to get Laura up on her soapbox, ask her about Richmond not having a family homeless shelter.) OAM helped him find an apartment and pay the security deposit so that he would have an address to list on his job applications.

I have a little personal experience with this on my street in Richmond, which is mostly rentals. I am constantly picking up garbage. The gentlemen down the alleyway have a confederate flag in their garage. One of the neighbor’s cats recently started visiting my house, looking for food. I happened to see and speak to the cat’s owner for a few minutes and found out that she has not had enough money to have the cat spayed and vaccinated and worries about the cat’s health. She also spoke of having to sell or junk her car for lack of money for repairs, leaving her without transportation. My other neighbors moved out without telling the landlord and shooed their (indoors) cat out of the apartment to live on the street. (As you can tell, I am a cat magnet.) Stereotypes are often there for a reason even when they’re not entirely true; I could look at the confederate flag, at the abandoned animals, at the trash, at the broken-down car, etc., and stereotype. Certainly there is a basic assumption (some people on my street live in poverty and have some of the associated limitations in living their lives) that is correct, although not universal and certainly varying greatly.

It’s critical to keep an open mind and heart to the people around you. It’s also important for those of us living in Richmond to be mindful of the incredible work that can be done in our own community. Laura pointed out that it’s easy for the residential students to feel poor living off part-time work and graduate loans, but ultimately important to remember that our educational loans are a “down payment” on skills,
transformational experiences, and future employment. Cyclical poverty is quite different. So, what examples of poverty have you seen in your area (particularly the Richmond area, if you’ve lived here)? What do you think are some solutions to that poverty? What can you do personally?

Valerie Hurwitz is Director of Recruitment and Admissions at Earlham School of Religion. She lives in Richmond, Indiana and serves as choir director at West Richmond Friends Meeting.

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