Saturday, August 22, 2009

In 1983 - Programs--or People?

(This is the second in a series of columns I wrote during the 1983 recession in Michigan. To read them in their proper order, either start at the bottom (A Community Call for Help) or click on each post in the Archives to the left.)

January 26, 1983 -

Last week I went to a conference in Romulus called "Serving the Poor and New Needy - A Community Challenge". Most of the participants were people who were involved in one way or another in community-needs programs. Some have had their acts together for years now and probably shared more information than they received. Others were just beginning and were there for guidance and direction.

The information was there in amazing abundance and I haven't yet had time to digest it all or put it in any kind of order, so that will come later. I do know, coming out of that workshop, that if I were in any kind of trouble--whatever it was--my first call would be to Community Information Services. They are the know-alls, hear-alls, see-alls around here and can direct callers in a matter of minutes to the right places.

The main purpose of the workshop was to bring all those Community Needs people together to pool all of their resources and talents into one giant task force and come up with a well-coordinated master plan for taking care of the needy in the out-county area. An ambitious project, to be sure, but if the outpouring of care and energy was any indication, it'll happen--and happen soon.

Of everything I saw and heard--and as impressed as I was--I can't get the workshop's keynote speaker out of my mind. The Reverend Edwin Rowe is pastor of the Cass United Methodist Church and champion of the "old poor (as he calls them) in the Cass Corridor.

Feeding the poor is nothing new to him. His church feeds upwards of 1200 people each and every week of the year. But there are some distinct differences between the old poor and the new poor, he says, that must be recognized. There's a toughness in the old poor--a lack of panic--that you don't find in the new poor.

"When you're finding ways of feeding people, it isn't enough that you worry about their nutritional needs. You have to worry about what it does to these people when they have to stand in line for three hours."

There was a certain arrogance about Pastor Rowe as he talked about the arrogance of the people who have elected to take on the task of feeding the "new poor". As one participant said later, "He was a real downer".

But if some of his words struck a nerve, very possibly it was a nerve that needed to be struck. Listen:

"We should stop going to meetings about the poor where only staff people are and start going to meetings where the poor people are. And if you're going to feed them, don't just feed them. Sit down and talk to them."

"What goes on is not feeding people but being known as a person who feeds people. There's a real temptation to grandstand. I call it the "Mother Waddles of the Year" syndrome. If we're going to be at all effective, we have to get our own need to be stars out of the way."

"There's a real arrogance in making people stand in line for food. Give them money instead, so they can go into stores like you and me and buy the same junk food (if they want) that we're able to do. When we give them vouchers (food stamps, etc.) we put a sign on them. If you give them money, nobody has to know who's unemployed and who's not."

"If we're not careful we will allow ourselves to set up an entire 'poverty industrial complex' where we will be in complete control and we'll expect people to be thrilled about the coming of surplus cheese. 750,000 poor people is an army which you and I have refused to organize. If we told these people the real truth about how it got that way, then they would insist on organizing and our jobs might be on the line."

". . .and we have to get the federal government not to get local communities to take care of their own, but to take responsibility for what they've done."
Whether you agree or not, it's all part of the "awareness" we've talked about so often. When you stop thinking about the poor as people and see them only as a part of your program then you're doing it for you and not for them.

A few of the people there were honest enough to admit that it's real easy, once you get into this thing, to focus only on ways and means and numbers--forgetting that these are real, live, feeling people you're supposed to be dealing with.

As one woman said to me, "The people with the food--and thus the power--have to ask themselves why they are offended, or even frightened by the suggestion that the poor be given back a certain amount of control by giving them money to spend as they choose. They have to ask themselves if they aren't enjoying too much the power they've been given."

Update: Rev. Edwin Rowe, quoted in this piece, worked tirelessly during that period to ease the woes of the people so devastated by the recession. I lost track of his activities over the years, but I searched his name today to see if he's still around and still working at it. To my great joy, I found that he is. As you can see in this YouTube video, he's still actively working for the poor and the disenfranchized, organizing and marching and being the kind of man of the cloth that would do his Maker proud.

In 1983 - A Community Call for Help

This is the first in a series of columns I wrote in early 1983, when the recession that devastated the country and nearly decimated Michigan was just beginning to wind down. I've never really understood the reasons for that recession, and even now there are a multitude of theories, but I didn't need to understand it in order to grasp what was happening to real people because of it.

These pieces are necessarily local, as I was a columnist for a chain of weeklies that covered the communities of Western Wayne County, outside of Detroit. Very little content has been changed, except where I felt the need to clarify. (Keep in mind that I was still a novice, so cut the writing some slack, okay? I present these now only as an example of how people dealt with that particular recession in a place that was hit harder than most. It is the same place that is being hit harder than most today.)

I'm posting the picture of me that appeared with my column then. Don't laugh.
January 12, 1983 -

Last week Mayor Pickering called together community leaders and organization heads to talk about the hunger problem in our community. At the outset of the meeting, Pickering jolted the group by telling them that, of the 84,000 people living in our city, roughly 25 percent of them were receiving some sort of public assistance.

But those figures, startling as they were, didn't begin to tell the whole story. As Pickering noted, these numbers don't reflect the number of people hiding out there. They are people out of work with no more unemployment money coming in, but with accumulated assets such as a house or a second car that keep them from qualifying for welfare benefits or even food stamps.

"These people don't want to be identified," Pickering said. "Their pride is all-important. Many, many of them have never had to live like this before."

Out of that meeting came an encouraging number of offers to help. Scout leaders will step up food collections, Skateland will host a skate night with all proceeds going to feed the hungry, the Lions Club will recommend a "can a man" from their membership and will loan their bus at any time.

The Goodfellows and the Jaycees will continue their good Christmas work. The Kiwanis, the VFW, and the Senior Citizens are all itching to get into the battle, and Councilwoman Nancy Neal wrote a check on the spot for $1000, representing one half of her council salary.

Tyrone White and Gerald Arbour were there to explain AAA's "Operation Foodbasket", an effort to collect food for the hungry in western Wayne County.

The outpouring of concern at that meeting was overwhelming, but it is only the beginning. There are still problems to be worked out--from identifying the hungry and the "new poor", to coordinating the programs so that everyone isn't doing the same thing, to spreading the message and getting enough food, money and volunteer help.

I've spoken in the last few days to numerous people involved in programs in their own communities, and I'm getting many different pictures:
In some communities they've been prepared--and have been doing--for a long time. In others, the impact of the unemployment situation in our county is just now hitting them. Some of them haven't even thought about programs until now.

AWARENESS. That's the key word now. There are people out there, in every community, in desperate need. There are no jobs and they're running out of money. People aren't making house payments and they can't pay their utility bills. They've reached the bottom of the barrel and there's nothing there. And they're convinced it must be their fault.

AWARENESS. Someone has to tell those people--the people with no jobs and no money--that it wasn't anything they did or didn't do. They are victims of rising inflation, of Reaganomics, of the decline and fall of the auto industry. They're not alone in this; eveyone is feeling the effects. There's nothing to be ashamed of.

AWARENESS. Everyone can help. Even those people who need it. The out-of-workers with nothing but time on their hands can volunteer to help fill food baskets--even if delivery is slated to his or her house. There is no "charity" when everyone is working together.

AWARENESS. For the next several weeks, I will devote this column space to spreading the word. We'll share information about community efforts and we'll take a deeper look at the hunger problem in our area. We'll look at how we're coping and how we're helping and we'll find out what the banks, stores, utilities companies, schools, churches and social services people are doing.

In this newspaper we've provided a box called "Hunger Hotline". It's a listing of community programs and contact people. The listings are far from complete but it's a start. If you have information to add to it, send it to me here or leave your name and number and I'll get in touch with you.

There is no shame in needing help. The shame comes in not giving it.