Dr. John Perkins argues that ultimately, poverty is not about a lack of money, but about a lack of options. This being the first work day of a month for me, I will spend it confronting poverty. I will deal with an overwhelming lack money, but more importantly I will spend the day staring down what feels like an almost insurmountable lack of options. Not only are the options limited for the people who will come seeking my help, by my options are limited in the ability to help.
I have come to realize that my job is to create options. Part of that work is to most certainly find some more money because options, even the best ones, like money, don’t grow on trees and don’t spring up overnight.
Here is the gun barrel of poverty in its lack of options with which I begin my day and my month. Each month, on the first day of each month, the agency for which I work makes available from its general operating budget $2000 for financial assistance for the purposes of assisting folks with rent, utility bills, prescription medication, gasoline and documentation such as birth certificates and photo I.D.’s.
We don’t accept applications for the rent or utility assistance until the beginning of each because the need is so great. When I arrive at my office today I will find an answering machine that probably stopped recording messages sometime Saturday afternoon. I will return messages and screen applicants. I will be able assistance to somewhere between 8 and 12 people. The money will be gone by this Thursday. After Thursday, as it is every other month, I will spend the next 26-27 days saying, “I can’t help you” to people and devote my energy to assisting trying to uncover other options. This is life in the abandoned places of America. It is a constant search for hope through just having one more option.
Sometimes cynical an overburdened ministers and caseworkers as well as those who haven’t experienced urban poverty up close and personally will argue that too many people living in poverty are just gaming the system, playing it for whatever handouts are available. This is true, they are. I’m not so sure it’s easy to dismiss this as a negative. Many of the people doing this are only doing what they need to survive – they are hunting and gathering resources. This is the way our species has survived for millions of years. When there is poverty – lack of options – you hunt and gather whatever resources are available. It is not gaming the system. It is staying alive.
The neighborhood in which my office is located is poor. Yes, it suffers from a lack of money, but more importantly it suffers from a lack of options. There are very jobs to be had and those that exist are at Whataburger. Educational options don’t really exist. The Fort Worth schools (Texas has an Independent School District system) are a struggling to failing institution at best. There are precious few affordable places for people to live and I know I serve a number of folks who live in vacant buildings in unsafe conditions because they don’t want to be a shelter.
If you have jobs, resources, donations, or would like to know how you can help offer more options, even in the most simple and rudimentary way, please be in touch. I am at The South Central Alliance of Churches.