Monday, May 3, 2010
what it's all about/maybe I'm a huge hypocrite
Last Tuesday I was on my way back to campus from my internship, somewhere on the redline and lost in my own thoughts. We stopped and a rush of people flooded onto the train. One woman stood in the middle of the car and began to address the passengers. She began with an apology “It took a lot to stand here and do this. I never thought I’d be this person. I never thought I’d find myself doing this… but I lost my job three months ago and I’m still waiting for my unemployment checks… I have three kids at home and we’re out of everything… I’m on my way to the grocery store but I don’t have any money to buy food with. We’re even running out of toilet paper… I’m so sorry to ask but, I am, I’m begging because we need groceries, can anyone help me out? Please?” Since I’ve started living in Boston I’ve never carried cash but by chance I had tossed $2 in my pocket that morning in case my Charlie Card was running low. I jumped up and walked over to the woman. I could tell how difficult this was for her. I just wanted her to feel a little bit of hope, to make her feel cared about and to know that she wasn’t alone. I knew handing her $2 wasn’t going to accomplish all that. “I’m so sorry this happened to you” I said. “How old are your kids?” “Thanks. 14, 11 and 9.” she mumbled fighting to keep eye contact. “Wow all boys?” “No the youngest is a girl. Thanks for your help I’m so sorry to bother you” she said as I handed her my $2. “I wish I could help more,” I said, “Have you tried applying for food stamps? I’ve heard they’re making it a lot easier to get because so many people need a little help right now” (‘Thank you internship research!’ I thought, maybe I can really help this woman). “You know she said, “This sounds crazy but I tried and they said I can’t get them because my car is too new.” I knew from our research that was also true, and frustrating. Despite the huge increases in funding the to program there was still the catch of disqualifying people with a car valued at a certain amount. Other passengers started to jump in, offering cash and also other suggestions. “Have you tried the food bank?” “I know a church on Washington Street that can help you.” “There’s a place in Central that gives away canned goods”. The woman had tried a lot of social services, some she didn’t qualify for, some had been able to help a little. She thanked everyone for their offerings and suggestions. “Good luck with everything” I said. “I hope things work out for you.” I stepped off the train, frustrated beyond belief. Here I was, spending 20 hours a week doing all this research and I couldn’t think of a way to help this woman. She’s what the anti-poverty campaign I'm working on is all about and I had let her down. At the same time I was so touched by the fact that other passengers on the train had offered their ideas and small donations. Maybe it just took one person to take a small stand and then others would follow. I ran through every single scenario in my head, everything I should have done to help this woman more. Once I was able to get a little bit of perspective I realized that this experience validates just how important the work of my internship is. There are so many great service organizations out there trying to help people in need, but they can’t do it all. There’s a dire need for new policy. Yes, we need to show simple signs of humanity, there’s no shame in offering someone a donation of food or clothing when they’re in need, more importantly there should be no shame in asking for it. Yet without policy to support people in need, change will not come. Working on this campaign, my perceptions about poverty in the US have changed so dramatically. There are so many people right now struggling to make ends meet, people who never thought they would find themselves in that position. And we're letting them down. Society is failing them. They've worked for the American dream and now it's been pulled out from under them. I know I'm generalizing. I know there are good and bad and lazy and hardworking people in every socio-economic class. Regardless, this just isn't right. What would you do if you were in that woman's shoes? How would you feel? Until we can answer that with sincerity we're in no position to make judgements.