Faith Works 8-25-12
Step by step, we travel together
Poverty involves a great deal of walking.
It's something most people don't realize, or see beyond certain circumstances.
We're all dimly aware of the fact that transportation is a persistent problem in keeping our social safety net woven together; getting people from where they live, or can live, and to work or to needed services is a constant challenge.
There are ongoing efforts to co-ordinate taxi and bus programs here in Licking County, but they still carry – or place – a burden for the poor of irregularity and inconsistency, often not getting people where they need to be in our regimented, clock-driven society.
And oft-times it just isn't practical to try to get a bus token or taxi call for the assorted errands that have to be done, or for the reasons you want to go.
So the poor, anywhere, but including here in Licking County, walk. A lot.
You may see some walking along the uncertain edges of high-traffic areas and think "why would someone walk down this street/artery/highway?" Sidewalks aren't always present where you need them to get from, again, the places where people live in more affordable housing, and to where the stores and offices and entertainment are. But you walk anyhow.
That's not all, or even most of it; when you get off the busy streets, there's more of it even as there's even less sidewalk. From house to house to visit, sometimes carrying bags, occasionally carrying kids; maybe riding a bike but bikes have an irritating way of disappearing even when you put a lock and cable on them. So you walk.
I've heard it said that, because so many of the folks stuck in poverty are overweight, they ought to have to get out and work and walk more: trust me, most of them are walking. Questions of diet and nutrition in low-income working class neighborhoods are a whole 'nother column, but for now, let me assure you, the lower the net household income, the more they're walking, no matter what the BMI measures.
Recently, I've been doing some work with the Newark Earthworks Center on a hike around the full circuit of our remaining portions of our 2,000 year old complex. You've probably seen the Great Circle, and maybe even the Octagon, but if you know where to look, there are many little fragments and traces of all the rest of the formerly 4.5 square miles connected array of geometric earthworks, the largest such complex in the world.
The Octagon is leased to a country club, and has the hospital and doctor's offices around it, but almost any direction you walk from there towards the Great Circle or where the Ellipse once arced across Union St., you're walking through some working class and ultimately low income neighborhoods. I've been in and out of most of them over the last few decades, but it's different when you're on foot and tracing up and down alleys, treading out the streets, and even wading down in the creeks and rivers. And you meet people, fellow walkers. We talk. I learn things.
It was an unintentional experiment, but one that got me to thinking about "walking in someone else's moccasins" not only across 2,000 years, but across some more immediate divides.
George Orwell under took a similar sort of experiment in "Down and Out in Paris and London," a book he wrote based on personal experiences between 1929 and 1931 in those cities. It began out of necessity, when a robbery took his money and he had to take a job as a dishwasher in Paris to get by until a check could be sent to him, and continued as an experiment in participatory journalism, one emulated in recent years by Barbara Ehrenreich with "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" in 2001, another worthwhile read.
A friend and colleague in ministry in Oregon, Christian Piatt, is doing something like it online and in life by trying to live on SNAP/Food Stamps for a week. Yes, it's supposed to be a supplemental program, but he knows that too; we both know that there are not a few trying to get by on that as their entire food budget, and that's what he and his family are working to understand . . . just a little. You can find him at Patheos.com and search for "SNAP/Food Stamp challenge."
Christian and I both know something that Orwell said better than either of us can back in 1933 at the end of "Down and Out": "At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty. Still, I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning."
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; tell him where you've been walking in someone's shoes lately at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.