Charity Chicken: Anti-Dignity and Ways to Counteract It

Happy Independence Day, America! I’ve chosen to write about a topic that goes hand in hand with independence: Dignity.

My mother was a single mom in an era when that was not only less acceptable, but also not as workable. Daycare wasn’t as widely available, and women were often relegated to the most menial low-paying jobs. No one talked about a glass ceiling because women didn’t even consider looking up, let alone moving up. Divorce was scandalous. You were expected to bite your tongue, take your abuse, stay home and raise the children. How were you supposed to survive when society and culture and economics were all stacked against you?

Much to our general humiliation, there were times when we had to resort to accepting a box of food from the local church. Thanksgiving was one of those times. We got a chicken breast, some cranberries, and some beans. Nothing to make these items palatable. No bread, no butter, no spices, no sugar. Nothing. My oldest sister used to bitterly call this “charity chicken”. We were grateful to have food, of course, but it wasn’t a very festive holiday meal for a family of four. In retrospect, this food probably did more to assuage the guilt of the more affluent members of the community than it did to allow us some dignity in our struggle to survive.

Dignity is a valuable commodity when you’re poor, because there are so many mechanisms in place to try and take that from you. I get so irritated when people say that all poor people are lazy and that they want handouts and feel a sense of entitlement. Entitled to what, exactly? Humiliation, hopelessness, hunger and despair? While that may be the case for a pathetic few, the vast majority of us who are struggling would do anything to have it otherwise. In fact, it has been my experience that most poor people work harder than the rest of society. They just get fewer returns for a variety of reasons. Who works harder? A CEO of a fortune 500 company, or someone who is digging ditches in the hot sun?

If you don’t have your health or educational opportunities or a stable family unit, you often wind up at the bottom of the societal heap. Someone always has to be at the bottom, or the people at the top have nothing on which to stand.

I’d like to think that most of us make efforts to help those in need. I read somewhere that poor people tend to donate a larger percentage of their income to charity than rich people do. That says quite a bit. And there are so many worthy causes out there that there is ample opportunity to be generous.

I would like to make a personal appeal to all of you. When you do choose a charity, please choose one that allows people to maintain their dignity. Most people do not want you to throw your money or food at them and then walk away. They want to be able to lift themselves up. Sometimes they just need a helping hand to start them on their way. Donate to programs that give people job skills. Donate to groups that help restore people’s health so they can become active participants in their communities. Donate to organizations that allow people to become self-sufficient.

Here are my two favorite charities:

  • Heifer International. I often suspect that this organization would be much more popular and well known if it didn’t have such a goofy name, but the amazing work they do makes up for that faux pas. It takes your donations and buys livestock with it. Cows, ducks, goats, llamas, honey bees, you name it. These animals can provide lifesaving income and sources of food for families throughout the world. But here’s what makes this group even more amazing to me: they don’t just hand someone a cow and then walk away. They train them in the best ways to keep this cow healthy. They teach them to run a business selling the milk. And best of all, they require that they breed the animal and provide a calf or two to other families in need, so the cycle continues. Those who are helped obtain skills that will sustain them for a lifetime, and then they, too, become helpers. There is nothing more dignified than that. One donation to Heifer International can cause a positive ripple effect that will go on for years.

Heifer

  • Kiva.org. Technically this isn’t even a charity, so if you’re simply looking for a tax write off, you may want to steer clear of this one. Kiva is actually a micro loan organization, so any money you put into it you will get back. Their default rate is so incredibly low that I’ve never lost a penny in the 7 years that I have participated. In that time I’ve made 41 loans to people in 31 countries. Here’s an example of how it works. Maria in Ecuador is a single mother who has a tiny little shop that she runs out of her home. In it she sells children’s clothing. She has noticed that the farmers in her area don’t have a convenient source for heavy duty pants to wear while working in the field. She wants to expand her inventory to include these items, but she needs a loan. You make a loan to Maria, in increments of 25 dollars. Perhaps you and 23 other people around the world contribute to it. Maria then pays you back, and you have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve expanded her business, increased her income and improved the lives of everyone in her family. That’s a great feeling, so if you’re like me, you’ll take that same 25 dollars that you loaned to Maria and you’ll loan it to yet another person. Loaning that same money over and over and over again throughout the years, I’ve actually given $1,150.00 in loans and yet have only tied up $25.00 in actual money, which I can get back if I ever need to. What seems like a tiny amount of money can make a huge difference in the life of someone who lives on a dollar a day.

kiva

The beauty of participating in both these programs is that you get to feel all warm and fuzzy and the people you help get to keep their dignity and lift themselves up. How can you beat that?

Stuff Like This Never Happens to Me

Rumor has it that a former coworker of mine found a bag of money on the side of the highway and came in to the office and retired the very next day. I also used to work with a nurse who won a million dollars from a McDonald’s game. She continued to work, though, which astounded me. And everyone hears stories of people who find priceless works of art at yard sales. Or someone builds a better mousetrap and becomes a millionaire.

How often do things like this really happen though? How many of these stories are apocryphal? It seems that none of us can resist passing these stories on. Maybe it’s because for those of us who struggle to remain at the top of the heap in the struggling lower class, it gives us some hope, however unrealistic, that there’s a way out.

Poverty is like a bucket of crabs. You spend your whole life trying crawl over the top of all the crabs below you, and the rim of the bucket is in sight, and then someone’s claw grabs your leg and pulls you right back down.

So my question is this: is it cruel to pass on these rags to riches stories, which give false hope? Does it prevent us from seeing our lives realistically, coming to accept them as they are, and maybe savoring those brief moments of joy that do come along? Or, on the other hand, are these stories the only things that stand between us and utter despair? In other words, do we give up and resign ourselves to our lot in life and finally reach some form of acceptance, or do we dream and strive and swallow the opiate of the masses and hope that we will be one of the rare ones who overcome?

never give up

A Global Perspective. Get One.

Well, it is looking more and more like they’re going to do away with full time positions where I work so they won’t have to provide us with health care. If that happens, I am in deep trouble. I honestly don’t know how I’ll make it. And I’m hearing that same story from more and more of my friends. It feels like we Americans are on the threshold of a brand new way of living, and it may take decades for it all to settle into a routine that can be characterized in any formal way.

But I refuse to panic, because I’ve traveled. I have seen what people do to survive, and I know that I’ve yet to tap in to even one percent of my survival skills. I may feel like I’m falling, but I have a LONG way to fall before I get to where most of the planet is. I’m still in fantastic shape, relatively speaking. And I think the fact that most Americans do not travel internationally is what makes them so closed minded and nervous about their future. A global perspective will demonstrate to you that human beings can survive under the harshest of circumstances. We are a hardy breed. And even the poorest American is so much better off than the vast majority of the world that it kind of makes me blush that we complain at all.

Here are some statistics from the Global Issues website that will certainly make you think.

  • Around 27-28 percent of all children in developing countries are estimated to be underweight or stunted. The two regions that account for the bulk of the deficit are South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Based on enrollment data, about 72 million children of primary school age in the developing world were not in school in 2005; 57 per cent of them were girls. And these are regarded as optimistic numbers.
  • Nearly a billion people entered the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their names.
  • Less than one per cent of what the world spent every year on weapons was needed to put every child into school by the year 2000 and yet it didn’t happen.
  • Access to piped water into the household averages about 85% for the wealthiest 20% of the population, compared with 25% for the poorest 20%.
  • There are 2.2 billion children in the world. 1 billion of them live in poverty.
  • In 2005, the wealthiest 20% of the world accounted for 76.6% of total private consumption. The poorest fifth just 1.5%.
  • Approximately 790 million people in the developing world are still chronically undernourished, almost two-thirds of whom reside in Asia and the Pacific.

It’s a brutal world in which we live. No matter how far I may fall, I know that I can always look over my shoulder and see billions of people who are worse off than I am. And if you have the leisure time and the ability to sit and read this blog, you are in the same position that I am. This position does not make me proud, but it does give me perspective. And as more and more things start to unravel, I’m grateful for that perspective.

PlanetEarth

The Cigarette Girl and the Waving Man

I spent the first 10 years of my life in Connecticut, so when we moved to a small Southern town in the 1970’s, it was quite a culture shock. The segregation was more subtle than it had been in the 50’s, of course. We all went to school together. But we certainly didn’t live in the same neighborhoods, attend the same churches or socialize in any significant way. Every rural town has its characters, but in Apopka, Florida where I grew up, ours were even more tragic or heroic or, I suppose, both, due in part to this unofficial segregation.

Every day, rain or shine, you were bound to come across the cigarette girl. She looked like she was in her early 20’s. She was always in a ragged house dress and barefoot, summer or winter. I never saw her move, but she must have, because she popped up on various street corners throughout town, and she’d just stand there in a catatonic state, looking like an impoverished, unkempt and extremely neglected statue. The saddest thing about her was that she always had cigarette butts stuck haphazardly in amongst her corn rows. It was disgusting. It was tragic. And the fact that her family and the powers that be in the city did absolutely nothing for her, and I felt completely unequipped to do anything myself, made me feel like the world was not a safe place, and that you couldn’t count on adults at all. Whenever I saw her I was mesmerized by her, but was too afraid to approach her. I tried to find out her story, and I did hear a rumor that she had been gang raped when she was 5 years old, and hadn’t been “right in the head” since. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But I do know that the entire town seemed to be content to let her roam the streets like a stray dog, and there’s something very, very wrong with a community that’s willing to do that.

On the way home from school or the library or the drug store, we would have to drive through the poorer neighborhoods because we were extremely poor ourselves, and therefore lived on the outskirts of town. Every single day unless it was raining, we would pass this broken down shack next to the railroad tracks, and sitting out front on one of those ratty old webbed lawn chairs would be a very old, weathered man. Whenever a car would drive by, he’d wave and smile, so I called him the waving man. I knew nothing more about him. He never had anything with him. No newspaper, no radio, no book, not even a glass of sweet tea. But he never looked bored. He just sat there and waved his wrinkled old hand as if that was his calling, as if he had always been there and always would be.

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(Image credit: http://www.flickriver.com/photos/tags/lreyns/interesting/ )

At the time it never occurred to me to stop and talk to him. I think I’d have been too scared because of the neighborhood or too intimidated to cross our great cultural divide. But I was always curious about him, and would have loved to know his story. He looked happy, and yet I’m amazed that shack he lived in didn’t fall down every time a train went by and rattled its already shaky foundation. I never saw him with friends or relatives, but he looked much too old to be taking care of himself. Still, he was there, day after day, smiling, waving, enduring and apparently timeless, living his life. And I would always wave back. I hope he was content and cared for by his neighbors during his last days, but I’ll never know, now.

The last time I went back to Apopka it had changed so much that I could barely find my way around. The drug store was a mere shadow of its former self. The library, once housed in a cozy corner of a strip mall, had moved on to bigger, more modern accommodations. Everything seemed bigger and more modern, in fact. My town had joined the 21st century at last. But I will always remember it as a small town that looked the other way, and maybe that was good, and maybe it wasn’t. That was just the way Apopka was.