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.

No comments: