Repression was the Duvalier family business in Haiti. The many crimes of these dictators against their own people are well documented. But the story most often repeated is how “Mama Simone” Duvalier had air-conditioning installed in the National Palace so that she could comfortably wear her fur coats, in a tropical nation where poverty increased as wealth was concentrated in the ruling family’s inner circle.
We read that and think: How obscene! No wonder they had a revolution.
Unfortunately, income inequality is a problem in the United States, too. Global Post has a nifty function where you can see how the gap between rich and poor in your area compares with the situation in other nations. President Barack Obama’s home city of Chicago has a similar income gap to Rwanda.
Maybe that was on his mind when he said in his inaugural address: “For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.”
There’s nothing wrong with being rich. I’d be fine with the rich getting richer if the poor weren’t simultaneously getting poorer. As I’ve previously written, the rate of extreme poverty in the United States has doubled since 1996. By extreme poverty, I mean a person living on about $2 a day. Meanwhile, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service tells us that the top one percent of households hold about a third of the nation’s wealth.
I am neither a politician nor an economist. I offer no macro solution to this problem. But I can offer some micro ones. Extreme poverty in itself creates barriers to employment and self-sufficiency. People need help over those barriers, many of which seem like small things to those of us who are more fortunate. “Handouts” have a negative connotation. We hear that they are a “Band-Aid” solution. When you are bleeding, a Band-Aid is a wonderful thing. In addressing extreme poverty, we must first stop the bleeding.
There’s a mom and baby in South Florida who were homeless. The mother worked with an agency that got them shelter and also offered her a training program to become a certified nursing assistant. She still could not afford the diapers her childcare center required. But thanks to the Junior League of Boca Raton's Diaper Bank, she has an ongoing supply of diapers and is able to work. My friends at The Diaper Bank in North Haven, Connecticut, provided a wounded Army veteran with diapers for his son. That enabled the man to go back to school for job training.
As a social worker who spent much of her career working with families in extreme poverty, I know what a big deal the little things can be. Imagine sending your kids to school in dirty clothes because you can’t afford detergent. How well would you do in a job interview if you had to show up in an old tattered suit? How far could you stretch your food stamps if you had to shop at a corner store because you had no way to get to a supermarket?
The United States is often called “The Land of Opportunity.” It will take some work for us to deserve that title again. We need to tackle some big issues. In the meantime, though, you might find some small issues to tackle in your own community to make sure that your most vulnerable neighbors really do have an opportunity to thrive.