I never came face to face with the reality of poverty in the U.S. until I took a train from Augusta, Georgia to New York for the holidays, following completing basic training in the military.
I had known children from my hometown in Rhode Island who were poor, but they were only a tiny fraction of the people I had met while young. In other words, poverty was as remote and abstract to me as were the people living in shacks beside the railroad tracks. I had read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (1968) while on leave in Atlanta, but King’s arguments about inequality in the U.S., while compelling, where still an abstraction for me.
Interestingly, a major theme of King’s writing in Where Do We Go From Here? is his questioning of how this nation can expend so much of its treasure on military spending while neglecting the poor.
Over the many decades since the 1960s, I continued to wear the middle-class blinders that are so effective for members of that social class in protecting them from the realities of poor people in the U.S. . And then I began to teach students at a community college near Albany, New York. Some of the students were from middle-class backgrounds, but many of the students I taught, and continue to teach, are poor.
As I gained experience teaching students from poor socio-economic backgrounds, I began expanding my travels in the area around the community college where I teach. New York is a relatively wealthy state. Just down the Hudson River from where I teach is the center of the world’s global economy. Not only are trillions of dollars made there, but also trillions of those dollars have been lost since the economy went metaphorically south since 2007.
Albany, New York, is the capital of the state, with a beautifully designed capital district. What shocks the sensibilities, however, is the area that I use to approach the center of the city, just to the east of the city. There, many of the streets are populated with disheveled and squalid tenement buildings only a proverbial stone’s throw from the city’s center. Even to a casual observer, the conclusion can be drawn that in fact two separate and unequal cities occupy the same geographical area designated as one city.
The community college where I teach is located on a landform that rises above the Hudson River. From the top floors of its parking garage, the view to the southwest is breathtaking! The Catskill Mountains, their peaks rising about 3,000 feet above the river at the horizon, stand elegant and dark against the sky. Whether fall, winter, spring, or summer, those mountains wear a seasonal dress that makes them stand out in the environment for miles and miles distant. I often see them in their singular majesty while hiking in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Vermont. They define the landscape of the area.
Only a few days ago, I ventured into the heart of the city where I teach for the first time. The main road into the urban area of Troy, New York, drops rapidly down toward the Hudson River. Troy makes up one of three major urban areas in the greater Albany metropolitan area. It is just north and east of Albany. The road into Troy from the south leads through an area of multifamily buildings, many of which are dilapidated. Many of the students I work with come from this area. It does not take great powers of interpretation to accurately guess how the social, economic, educational, and political forces play out in their lives.
In 2010, I worked on the U.S. Census during the spring and summer months. Since I would not be teaching again until late August, I welcomed the opportunity to be out on my own going from door to door in the Berkshire Hills of southwestern Massachusetts.
From the perspective of the census, the Berkshires have a mix of two distinct population groups. There are the year-round residents such as myself, and those seasonal residents who spend only weeks at a time in the beauty of the surrounding hills that have their natural beauty heightened by cultural venues that are unparalleled even in large metropolitan areas. I knocked on scores of the doors of such seasonal residences, often amazed at the level of wealth needed to sustain such expansive part-time living spaces. On one country road, I stopped at a property that had a huge colonial residence, a great horse barn, an Olympic-size swimming pool, and acre after acre of remote meadowland. The latter is not at all that unusual for the kinds of homes I frequently encountered while completing the census.
With the census in mind, now that the Census Bureau has released statistics on poverty, I revisited some of the locales that I travel through on a regular basis to determine if my impressions on poverty met those numbers. Overall, 15.0 percent of those living in the U.S. live in poverty. The poverty rate for children under 21 is 21.9 percent, an unconscionable number! In Albany, the median income is $39,158, compared to the entire state at $55,603. Troy’s median income is $36,675. New York City’s median income stands at $50,285. A city on Long Island that I had briefly lived in during 1971, Garden City, is pegged at $139,956. The Berkshires has a median income of $48,907, which does not take into account the high number of part-time residents that I encountered while completing the 2010 census there.
If one looked at the census by race and ethnicity, a conclusion can be drawn that the places noted in this piece reflected a relationship between race and income. In other words, places like Garden City, New York, and the Berkshires of Massachusetts, that had relatively high median income levels, had low minority group representation. And the inverse is also true. Cities with high minority populations, especially the cities through which I travel near work, have a low median income level.
Decades after Martin Luther King, Jr., the battles that he fought for economic justice and peace have not been won. Poverty remains the albatross that hangs around the neck of the body politic, and the chasm between the wealthy and the poor grows ever larger. The mountains stand as silent sentinels to this injustice!
*Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream” speech, August 28, 1962, Washington, D.C.
Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.