A different kind of poverty

The good ladies of the Community Mennonite Church of Markham welcomed me to their Thursday mid-day bible study group last week.

The good ladies of the Community Mennonite Church of Markham welcomed me to their Thursday mid-day bible study group last week. After introductions and an opening prayer, a verse-by-verse shared reading of Genesis Chapter 8, the chosen reading of the day, began.

This section sees Noah’s ark resting on Mount Ararat as the flood recedes. A raven and then a dove are sent out in the hope of finding a sign of life restored to the flooded earth. Eventually the dove brings back the olive branch. Over the millennia that dove has remained a sign of hope and peace; divine and secular.

The town of Markham lies in the first ring of suburbs on the south side of Chicago. The low cost of aging post-war housing there served as a haven for Afro-American families who had any means at all to escape rising violence when the crack epidemic hit their inner city Chicago neighbourhoods in the late 1980s.

Orlando Redekopp, a retired minister whose congregation had been in one such inner city area, brought me to his new church home. After serving his former charge for decades, he and his wife Joan Gerig looked for a multiracial community with the right mix of social and spiritual concern to worship in. The conversation over Genesis showed he had made the right choice.

The women easily and quickly turned the study into a reflection on their own lives and how they saw God giving them the tools and the strength needed to deal with the adversity they had faced in their own lives as Noah had. The life experiences they shared showed just how quickly life can change when you are poor.

One woman recounted how she had only left her apartment for a short errand just around the corner only to return a few minutes later to see her building engulfed in flames. A domestic dispute in the apartment above hers led to an enraged husband pouring gasoline down the stairs of the tenement and setting it alight. In just moments she became homeless.

Another woman at our table found herself living out of a car when unemployment suddenly overwhelmed her family. Others told of how they just made do feeding and clothing growing families with whatever they had, often making something out of what others might have seen as nothing.

The Community Mennonite Church pastor, almost a generation younger than the rest of us, said that in the same circumstances she probably would just have put her head in her hands and cried. The resilience of her older parishioners, she said, inspired her. Today’s young people, one bible study member reflected, might choose another response altogether: anger or resistance.

Inner city Chicago arguably now sees a qualitatively different kind of poverty from previous generations. It is a denser, more concentrated and while not as materially abject as before, it can be more socially disadvantaged.

Paul Tough, writing in the New York Times Magazine the Sunday before last, sought to explain these changes as a significant sector of the American society has become immersed in “extreme” or “deep” poverty. He referred to the work of a University of Chicago sociologist, William J. Wilson and his key book The Truly Disadvantaged.

Extreme poverty sees 40 per cent or more of an area living in poverty. Deep poverty is when a family earns below 50 per cent of poverty line income or basically $11,000 a year for a family of four. Citing U.S. Census Bureau data, Tough stated that “in 2010, one in every 10 American children lived in deep poverty.”

Professor Wilson noted the extreme toxicity of this concentrated poverty for neighbourhoods and their children. Once immersed by it, Wilson saw in affected communities “an exponential increase in related forms of social dislocation.”

Tough referred to an early speech in the first presidential campaign of Barack Obama in July of 2007 where he broadly pointed to the strategy needed to address the problem. President Obama, incidentally, cut his political teeth doing community organizing in inner city Chicago.

Speaking to an audience in a poor neighbourhood in Washington, D.C. then-senator Obama said, “If poverty is a disease that infects an entire community in the form of unemployment and violence, failing schools and broken homes, then we can’t just treat those symptoms in isolation. We have to heal that entire community.”

Healing the brokenness that comes with this different kind of poverty is needed here in the Yukon as well as in Chicago. Prayers like those of the women of Markham help move the spirit. The spirit of the community then must drive the needed actions such as an inclusive, comprehensive, Yukon wide anti-poverty strategy.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact pazypan@yukon.net.