Columnist Chelsea Kline: We have a responsibility to work to end poverty


Published: 2/28/2021 7:28:21 PM

Recently I asked a few people to reflect on the fact that many people are living in our communities in without houses. Many responded with empathy, anguish, and horror that there were so many among us who are surviving on donated food and sleeping in make-shift situations such as tents, even as the winter temperatures plunged below zero. There’s no shortage of empathy, yet we continue to struggle with implementing meaningful and lasting infrastructure to prevent people from the suffering that accompanies living within a system that demonizes, humiliates, and punishes lower income people.

I realize that working to prevent people from falling through the economic cracks assumes a moral common ground, a shared belief that people shouldn’t suffer, that no profits are worth more than basic human needs or dignity. Those viewpoints can only flourish in a mind that’s been enriched with compassion, but since capitalism rewards those who think mostly of themselves and their own personal gain, it can be challenging to remember that we are all interconnected. Most of us don’t lack empathy, it’s just easier to ultimately blame houseless people for their predicament, and we simply lack imagination to work for a societal shift from individualistic gain to shared humanity.

According to the Urban Institute, the poverty rate for 2020 was around 9.2 percent for white, non-Hispanic people (6.6%); Black, non-Hispanic people (15.2%); Hispanic people (13.8%). So while it can be harrowing to confront and disrupt the systemic racism and endemic economic inequities in our nation, I believe that we have no choice but to work for a better world. Clearly, we need all hands on deck, from mutual aid networks, regular citizens undoing our own entrenched biases, and of course elected officials, this work requires our unwavering commitment to creating just and equitable communities.

Locally, a group of organizers created an online fundraising page called Touch the Sky PV that has brought in $26,305 from over 500 donors so far since last March. Their goal is to provide individuals without houses with micro grants, a drop-in center to supply people with food, hygiene products, medical and harm reduction supplies, clothing, and outdoor survival equipment. While these efforts are laudable, we can do better than allowing the survival and dignity of our neighbors to hinge on the serendipity of fleeting good will and kindness.

Two local elected leaders are shining examples of how we can weave thoughtful and bold empathy into our communities. Congressman Jim McGovern has said, “America can and must do more to address the issues of homelessness, food insecurity, and domestic violence that trap so many families in the cycle of poverty.” I am grateful for the tireless dedication of Congressman McGovern, who has given us some potent examples ofempathetic leadership, and is an inspiration to many.

Similarly and impressively, Lindsay Sabadosa has repeatedly proven her benevolent approach, even in her relatively short tenure, most recently with an Act establishing emergency funding for homeless services. This bill would have created an emergency law to support people experiencing homeless during the pandemic and preserved public safety and health, but it never passed the house. We are lucky to have this trailblazing woman serving our communities, and I trust that she will continue to advocate for her lower income constituents.

I can’t help but wonder how much worse would this winter have been for those without houses if we didn’t have compassionate elected leadership? Which begs the question, how much better can we do at preventing and eliminating poverty? Clearly, our progressive leaders can’t make positive changes in our communities on their own if even emergency funding to prevent suffering can’t pass the house. We need to keep electing people who believe in helping those that are hurting the most, and vow to actively address root causes.

Running for and serving in public office is a tremendous privilege, and is open to only a select few. In our current system, to run and win takes incredible unpaid time and effort, connections, networks, and knowledge of unwritten rules, often excluding low income people by design. For those with economic privilege, understanding the never-ending stressors that plague those facing poverty can be challenging If you haven’t lived it yourself. Living without a safe, warm, private dwelling can be soul-crushing and deeply exhausting, and working to meet just daily basic needs takes an incredible amount of time and effort. For real change to occur, we need leaders who are able to deeply listen, and actively repair from the ground up, while true compassionate and inclusive leadership means bringing unhoused, low income, and members of other marginalized groups into conversations and decision making opportunities.

According to Joanne Goldblum and Colleen Shaddox, authors of Broke in America, Seeing, Understanding, and Ending U.S. Poverty, we have the collective power to actually eliminate entrenched economic injustice, but we must think creatively, humanely, and of course inclusively. Increasing access to education, jobs and training, affordable housing and universal healthcare, livable wages, mentorship, and access to engage in political opportunities are all proven ways to actively work for justice.

Our duty as citizens and voters is to stop pretending that racism and other structural inequalities aren’t deeply woven into the economic disparities that continue to fester all around us. We have a responsibility to work to end poverty by helping marginalized people run and win elected office, and support compassionate leaders who are humble enough to listen, learn, and advocate for those who are languishing at the bottom of our deeply flawed and unjust system.

Chelsea Kline is a social justice advocate in western Massachusetts and a mother of three. She writes a monthly column for the Gazette.

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