For today's reflections, I'm going to go in a slightly more personal direction.
A week ago, I made a move from central Ohio, my home of the past twelve years, to Omaha, Nebraska, a city and state I had never laid my eyes on before and which is the home to my assignment for the next year as an Americorps VISTA. Partly from my change in locale but mostly owing to my lack of a social life here, I have had a lot of time to reflect on my new situation and what I am learning here in Omaha.
The main motivation for my interest in the VISTA program and this assignment in particular was an opportunity to deal with the problems of everyday people on the ground level and to gain an experience of empathy that I would not have had the opportunity to have from a week-long service trip or irregular volunteer visits to soup kitchens. VISTA is a federal program that places year-long volunteers in assignments that are geared specifically toward the goal of poverty alleviation. My assignment in particular is working with an organization called the Neighborhood Center, a nonprofit that helps build capacity for neighborhood associations throughout the greater Omaha area. Little did I anticipate that my experience with poverty would be experiential as well as observational.
As Americorps VISTAs, we commit to a year of service, but are paid a living stipend to cover housing, food, transportation, etc. That living stipend is set at the poverty level for the area we are living in. Thus, my stipend is $928/month before taxes. While this is low, I calculated rent costs for my new apartment in Omaha along with transportation (bus passes are provided through the program for free) and food costs and saw that I would be living on more than I did in college or in the time between graduation and the beginning of my tenure as a VISTA. It didn't seem like it would be a problem at all.
While in college, I spent half of my time on Pell Grant, a program that only the bottom 11% of students at Denison qualified for. Despite being in the bottom 11% of students when it came to wealth, I never felt like I didn't fit in or was limited by that status. For all that students make of class inequality, there is something inherently egalitarian about college life, especially at my school. Everyone lived on campus, so transportation was not much of an inequality issue. Even without a car, I did not feel terribly limited compared to those who owned one. We all ate in the same dining halls for three years. Housing was paid for at the start of the year, so rent payments are not an issue. I was able to get along fairly well with people with "rich" families and those whose families were not so well off.
Though I am only a week into my experience here in Omaha, I am already starting to see that "poverty" has a much bigger impact on your life post-graduation. The biggest place that I am seeing an impact is in transportation. While I could always hitch a ride with someone or use my parents' car in high school and I had three roommates with cars in college, I am now living on my own, a mile from the most frequent-running bus stop, during a winter that is just beginning.
What I am also running into is a lack of people to spend time with. While my landlord and the program have introduced me to a number of people who are friendly and willing to help me out when I need it, I still do not have a circle of friends here to have fun with and to depend on when I need help.
This experience is something that was touched on in our VISTA training a week before our assignments began. I recall our group facilitator leading a session on poverty, explaining that poverty was something that was experienced in a number of different ways. While we tend to emphasize income, poverty manifests not only financially, but also mentally, socially, physically, etc.
This message fits well with one that is put forth by Nobel-Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen in his book Development as Freedom. In chapter 4, "Poverty as Capability Deprivation," Sen argues that poverty is often narrowly construed as a lack of income. This definition, however, fails to encapsulate the fact that someone can be impoverished even with financial resources. One example he uses to explain this is that of unemployment. Even if someone is able to be recouped the financial loss caused by unemployment, not being able to sustain one's self through employment shows a certain poverty of dignity that most would not want to subject themselves to. This is evidenced by the uneasiness we have when unemployed and being stuck with the question "well, what do you do?" in social situations. Poverty is not only a lack of financial resources, but is more broadly a lack of capabilities to fulfill basic human needs.
Another takeaway from this message for me, though, is that my poverty will never really reach the level of those who find themselves stuck in a multidimensional cycle of poverty. While I may find myself without a sizable income, without adequate transportation, and without a readily available group of friends, I still have a college education and social resources that come from growing up in a wealthy suburban enclave and attending a top-50 liberal arts college. Thus, I have opportunities and possibilities that most in abject poverty are without.
While I will never be able to fully understand what it feels like to be truly trapped in poverty, I can still do what I can to sympathize and empathize with those around me who are. And at least I'm trying.