Tag Archive | "poverty"


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The very word, “Snap!” demands your attention, but I’ll bet you don’t know the origin of the acronym “SNAP.”  It is short for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, an agenda designed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to put food on the tables of 40 million elderly, disabled, and low-income Americans struggling to survive in the richest nation in the world.

An overview of the program illustrates that, despite it’s intent to help the poor and huddled masses yearning to breathe free, it is, in fact, benefiting only the chosen few.  To be eligible, you must meet very strict requirements before you taste the rewards.  These include:

  1. Documented monthly income demonstrating that you live below the poverty level.
  2. Documentation of your identify and all of your resources.
  3. Documentation of shelter, dependents, and medical expenses.

Once the necessary information is submitted and then investigated thoroughly, the final decision is subjected to a computerized mathematical formula that would make NASA’s space program look obsolete.

But let not your heart fear, for there are some special groups that are considered eligible.  These are:

  1. People that have no income.
  2. Dependents under the legal age born in this country.
  3. Laotians that sided with the Americans during the Vietnam War.

Illegal immigrants are not included in this program, but step 2 is applied to their “anchor babies” (children born to illegal aliens).  Where did we go wrong in trying to feed Americans who paid into the system with their blood, sweat, and taxes, and who cannot survive in the richest country in the world?

As we know, man cannot live by bread alone; neither can woman.  The SNAP program only addresses the nutritional needs to sustain life: it does not include the non-essentials such as toiletries.  I guess our fearless leaders assume that there are lots of paper advertisements that get tossed into the trash, so a little recycling will take care of the need to buy toilet paper.  But that can get a little messy, not to mention the health hazard of ink being absorbed into vital tissues. I remember that during the Great Depression, fruits were sold and wrapped in tissue paper — and this solved the toilet paper problem for enterprising souls … or perhaps those with impaired nerve endings.

We live in a land of milk and honey, and yet, we still have poverty.  Americans falling between the cracks trying to survive today’s problems are frustrated, and do you wonder why?  When catastrophes occur on foreign soil, the United States sends billions of dollars in aid and yet, no good apparently comes of the hard-earned taxpayer monies sent overseas.  What happens to the very generous resources that we sent, for instance, to Haiti last year?

If Jesus had used the SNAP method to feed the multitudes that attended his Sermon on the Mount, He could have gotten away with that one fish and a half-loaf of barley bread.  For too many Americans who do not pass the food stamp test, “SNAP” will be the last sound they hear before the roll is called up yonder at the Pearly Gates.

Today, we are witnessing food problems all around the globe and resultant unrest.  Yet, this is just the tip of the iceberg. We live in troubled times, so let’s forget the world and take care of our own people.  Charity begins at home.  If there is any left over, then we can share it with the world. 

A Chance (?) Encounter

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Mr. President, something happened to me the other day that I feel compelled to share with you.

On the first bitter cold Manhattan morning, I settled into my usual table at my usual coffee shop, with my usual steaming coffee, opening the first of two Irish newspapers that I usually buy each Wednesday.  They are a weekly treat, the Irish papers, and I look forward to a leisurely, undisturbed read. Enveloped by the fragrance of wafting coffee and fresh newsprint, I was rewarded with a rare double-page spread of verse, the results of a contest for fledging poets.  The shop was cozy, the verse touching and thought-provoking, the coffee melting like a warm caramel over my tongue.  A more than pleasant way to start the workday.

A woman bustled in and began to settle herself beside me.  In typical New York custom, I did not acknowledge her presence or even toss a glance her way.  But something in the rustling of too many packages made me look up.

One sleeve of her cheap, slightly dingy coat was dangling by a thread — as, I realized a moment later, was she.  Muttering lucidly, the way that you might speak aloud to yourself, the woman lamented the loss of the two dollars that had been in her pocket not five minutes earlier; the two dollars in coins that “that nice lady on the subway” had given her that very morning.

Those two dollars graced her pocket the way that my millions grace my bank account: they were never there to begin with.  She was one of that brand of homeless souls that break your heart if you let them.  She still very much resembled a human being in appearance and odor, and was trying, with the last shred of her dignity, to beg without begging.

I wished that she would go away, or that I could slip into the stanza that I had read six times and was not getting, as she was sapping my attention.  An employee of the coffee shop inquired (politely, to his credit), if he could help the woman.  She explained that as soon as she located her two dollars, she was going to buy herself some breakfast.  He nodded and went away, and we all knew he’d be back in a minute, less than polite.  The other patrons were glaring at her stone-eyed, those that had bothered to look up, that is.  All this woman wanted was a hot beverage and a Danish.  All she wanted was a place to sit other than a doorway, couched like an animal and cornered by the wind.  Two dollars would have bought her all that.

Surreptiously, I slipped two singles out of my wallet and asked meekly, “Miss, is this your money?”

“Why, yes!” she lit up.  “Did you find it on the floor?”

“You must have dropped it,” I lied, for we both knew that she had mentioned coins, not bills.

“Thank you,” she responded, and I would have left it at that.  But she added warmly, “You’re an angel.”

I mumbled something like, “No, I’m not” or “That’s all right.”  But with quiet force, she insisted, “Oh no, you’re an angel.”  Mr. President, those who know and love me best can attest that I am nobody’s angel.  But maybe, in that moment, I was.  I was one poor woman’s angel of mercy.

As she made her way to the counter, I prepared to make a hasty retreat.  Quickly, reluctantly, I folded my paper and began to shrug on my layers of clothing.  But not quickly enough.  As I was reapplying my lipstick, she slid back in beside me and the heat rose up in my face.  I was embarrassed — for her, for me, but mostly for me.

“Oh,” she observed, “that’s a pretty shade of lipstick.  I only wear make-up when I go to my dance class.  It’s free, you know, at the Y.”

For the first time, I looked her full in the face.  There was a gap where her two front teeth had been, and her unwashed hair had been coiffed as stylishly as possible under the circumstances.  “You … go to dance class?” I choked.

“Yes,” she said kindly.  And now she was the angel, delicate with my embarrassment.  “It helps me to keep in touch, if you know what I mean.”

I knew, and did not know, what she meant.  All my life, I have slept in warm, clean beds, eaten all the food I could possibly want, and have blithely tossed away the scraps.  I finished college.  Of the 400 students in my graduating class, I was one of 24 lucky enough to land a job, and I’ve been working ever since.   So I could not bring myself to nod, “Yes, I know what you mean.”  I only gulped, looked her again in the eye and whispered, “Good luck.”

“God bless you,” she replied and repeated, as I hadn’t heard her the first time, “God bless you.”

God blesses me yes, but who blesses her?  Like Saul struck down in the moment of his conversion, I walked in a stupor to my nice, warm corner office.  Living in New York City all my life, I gave whatever I could, regularly, to the homeless begging on the streets and on the subway steps.  I had the warm beds, the food, and the job, so it wasn’t a big deal to me.  But never once did I stop to speak with any homeless person, until that morning.

I wondered how many people never really look at the homeless.  And then I wondered that if they did look, what was it that they saw.  A pest and pestilence, a living Petri dish teeming with AIDS?  Do we avert our eyes, terrified that we might spy the semblance of a human being, fearful that the phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I” might jump into our heads and hit a little too close to home?

For me, it was another phrase that crept into my brain.  Not very long ago (after you had been elected, but while President Reagan was still in the White House), a woman that I know thoughtlessly repeated a platitude.  This was in response to my telling her about the crowd of barely-warm homeless bodies festooning Grand Central Station, the ones that I must step carefully over each morning on my way to work.  This woman is a sweet, naive soul who rarely ventures out of her borough and who votes the way her husband votes, and only that way, because “he knows about these things.”  Her reply to my tale of the homeless was, “But the President says there are no homeless in America.”

Mr. President, in my corner of the country, things are not getting kinder or gentler, as you’d promised they would when you were on the campaign trail.  It’s hard to look abject poverty in the eye when it sleeps on the streets where you live and work.  It must be harder still to acknowledge it as a reality when it appears as nothing more than statistics on a government report.  In a time when China blew away it’s youth and Germany jumped the Berlin Wall, people huddled hungry in our big city alleys or beside Midwestern streams are not even worthy of back-page news.  Three million Americans and counting have become invisible.  Yet, they exist.  They are, to paraphrase Jesus Christ, “always with us.”

They have lice and germs and foul odors.  They have human hearts and hands and eyes.  Although much of their sight must be turned inward, they see us, Mr. President, they see us.

Isn’t it time that we saw them?


Epilogue:  This article was originally published, in 1989, in Pantera magazine.  In the years since, the homeless population across the United States has exploded as the government has grown blinder still.  Our homeless population now includes many veterans who have sacrificed so much through too many wars, and well educated, once gainfully employed professionals hit hard by a rotten economy.  There is no longer a pat “profile” for homeless people, if ever there was.  Things are still not any kinder or gentler than they were in ’89.  In fact, they’re a whole lot worse.  May God bless us, indeed. 

Wealth in Poverty

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To Jesus in the Gospel of Saint Luke is attributed the expression “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”  For me and, I am certain, most others, the thought of impoverishment is anything but a “blessed” state in which to find oneself, whether one’s poverty is material or spiritual.  And so, is Jesus telling his audience to hang in there and suffer in this life to be rewarded in the hereafter?  Perhaps, but I think not.


I believe that the meaning has more to do about the nature of poverty, rather than its earthly manifestations.  One who is impoverished lacks the resources to adequately provide for himself and, by extension, others dependent upon him.  These resources are in part material, like money and property, but also spiritual, as in strength, confidence, vigor, and other intangible assets.


Those in the throes of poverty are emptied of all resources, like a once overflowing stream reduced to a trickle by a lengthy drought.  Bereft of most forms of sustenance including, in many cases, their human dignity, the impoverished cannot be said to live so much as exist.  Surely, no one would willingly submit to such an existence.


And yet, the state of impoverishment can be a “blessing,” depending upon your perspective.  In common understanding, wealth is synonymous with material gain and pride in achievement or station in life.  To be and to remain “wealthy,” however, requires maintenance, “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  How many of us have come to the realization that our material possessions own us?  How mentally and physically draining is it to preserve one’s reputation, image, or area of expertise?  How often has ego, born of confidence and unrealistically high personal expectations, limited our abilities to relate on a purely human level with others?


Wealth creates its own baggage in life and, like the links of the chain borne by Jacob Marley’s ghost in Charles Dickens’ classic – “A Christmas Carol,” its weight can grow over time, robbing its possessors of the freedom that they believe it provides them.  Poverty, in contrast, can be liberating.  Unfettered from concerns about possessions and social standing, the impoverished, emptied spirit can humbly seek new opportunities, form new opinions, and establish new relationships.  It is this “blessed” state of poverty that I believe Jesus was establishing as a condition for those seeking initiation into the “kingdom of God.”


As so often is the case, meaning in life is defined by contradiction.  In weakness, one is strong.  Through despair comes hope and compassion.  In humility, one is glorified.  In poverty, one gains true wealth.

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