Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Rainy Day Notes on Hard Times

As I start writing this post longhand, I am sitting at the window counter of the coffee shop at the corner of William and Sandusky Streets in downtown Delaware. It is a chill day and a cold rain is just starting to fall.

A gray, cold day. Cold and gray enough that headlights are on and the neon lights in the coffee shop's window glow into the gloom.

The Great Recession is weighing heavily on my mind today. I know a family - more than one, in fact - who cannot put a Thanksgiving meal on their table this year without other family members stepping up to help.

The Great Recession continues to chew away at this community. Before coming here to meet up with a friend, I was home baking for tonight's legal clinic. Back home it smells like cinnamon and warm baked goods. We'll exceed 200 clients tonight, with one more month yet to go in 2010. Our previous high was 178 clients in 12 months; with a canceled clinic in February, we will far exceed that number in only 11 months this year.

A story today in The Columbus Dispatch reported that one in seven Ohio families is now without adequate means to feed themselves. Our state just broke into the "top 10" states for hunger.

Now there's something to brag about.

Another story in the same edition reports that the incoming Republican Ohio senate leader has told the public schools to "expect deep cuts" in the upcoming budget. (This is the same party that, when ordered by the Ohio Supreme Court to fix the school funding system after the Court found it to be unconstitutional, refused to comply.)

Great. Now we will have hungry children who won't be able to read.

All over Ohio, demands on social welfare agencies - homeless shelters, food banks, free clinics, community mental health centers - are rising. In Columbus, the shelters were full by early November and winter hasn't even started in earnest here yet.

My good friend Judy and I traded thoughts earlier today about these hard times. In talking about the grassroots programs that are trying to desperately patch the holes in the social fabric of this town, Judy wrote, "I think we are on the right track with IFLS, Grace clinic, U.M.W. blanket fund, P.I.N., etc."

I replied, "I think we're going to need a whole lot more IFLS, Grace Clinic, UMW Blanket fund, PIN, etc. in the months and years to come."

Judy responded, "sign me up," then quoted Margaret Mead. "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

(Did I mention that Judy is a really good person as well as a really good friend?)

I offered up a quote from Deborah Stone, who wrote a very powerful book, The Samaritan's Dilemma, about the shift in our national culture from "what can we as a people do to conquer social ills" to "I have mine and it's not my responsibility that you don't have yours." Stone wrote:

When government permits such devastating conditions [such as hunger and homelessness] to persist, when it doesn't use every means at its disposal to help, when it models callousness and counsels its citizens not to feel badly about the suffering of others, it destroys the two most important qualities of a democratic citizenry: the desire to make life better for everyone and the will to take action.

The rain has picked up. The wind is chiller. I am sitting with my feet at the window and I can feel the cold radiate through the thick glass.

There are people in this town - my town - who are going without and doing without. There are people in my life - people I know - who are hungry and about to be homeless. There are others in my life - real people, not faceless statistics - who are stretching hard to keep the lights on and food on their tables.

We are about to enter the holiday season. While I dislike the commercial excesses of this time of year, I nonetheless concur with Fred, the nephew in A Christmas Carol:

There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, Christmas among the rest.  But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round -- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that -- as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.  And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!

Poverty in nineteenth century England ate at Charles Dickens and he frequently wrote about the debilitating social cost of hunger and homelessness and callousness. A Christmas Carol is particularly appropriate this year as the Great Recession grinds on and more and more analysts, even those of a more conservative bent, are starting to recognize that it is not just a "market correction" and that these hard times may well be the "new normal" for the next decade or more. As our government at state and national levels turns it back on the great need in this country, the words of the ghost of Jacob Marley may come to haunt us. Replying to Scrooge's comment that Marley always was good at business, the ghost wailed:

"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again.  "Mankind was my business.  The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.  The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

After the recent election, I wrote "and after all the shouting stops, then what? For those of us who serve (paid or unpaid) those without voices - the homeless, the hungry, the ill, the unemployed, the disenfranchised, the young, the old, our friends and neighbors - the people of this country whom both parties have abandoned - the results this week just mean we go right on trying to mend the torn social fabric of our communities."

That's what so many of us do, including many who have less than I do and yet feel compelled to do everything they can. Regardless of religious beliefs, so many of us have taken to heart the words of John Wesley:

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

(Thank you, Judy, for reminding me.)

It's a cold, gray day out there. It's colder and grayer if your hours have been cut at work. It's colder and grayer if the foreclosure notice is taped to the door. It's colder and grayer if you're hungry and you need to save the only food in the house for when everyone is gathered around the supper table.

Tuesday Postscript

Our free monthly legal clinic was last night. It was a cold, rainy night as the weather from earlier in the afternoon continued on into the evening. Our numbers were down. All the same, we quietly passed the 200 mark for 2010 clients.

Today, the sun is shining, the air is gentler. Walking to a late morning appointment, I realize I have dressed too warmly.

This morning there was an article in The Columbus Dispatch about suburban school districts in the greater Columbus area seeing a sharp increase in students qualifying for reduced or free lunches. One commentator noted "this information is really striking to them. It shows that this is a shared issue."

A shared issue? I'll say.

I worry about being a one-note band in this blog, that note being the horrific impact of the Great Recession on our communities. On the other hand, I cannot pretend there aren't those in my town, in my circle of friends, who are increasingly in need of help. Oh, I have other post topics lined up, some even half written, but this one moved to the front of the line by virtue of yesterday's and today's newspaper.

The only reason I have not experienced hunger or homelessness is because of the network of family and friends who have helped me. I have gone through many low spots in my life, but those are not two of them, and for that I am grateful.

As long as elected officials on both sides of the aisle refuse to support the least of us, the burden falls all the more heavily on the rest of us to make sure there are blankets and food and warmth and shelter for all.

Marley had it right: the common welfare is the business of us all.


Tonya said...

April, what can I do to make a difference in someone's life in Delaware? Any ideas?

Sharon said...

I'm coming to the conclusion, or I have for a while, not to count on the government for my dignity in living and surviving. It is up to the individuals to be there. You are doing so much for your community. If you spread this word, I'm sure more and more people will help. I live in quite a different area. The No.Va./DC area has been hit with the recession, but you would never know it. (Restaurants are crowded, stores are crowded). I do know, however, that there are many who are suffering as our outreach programs at church are almost to overwhelming levels. Thank you for continuing to remind us of others.

Anonymous said...

I am in Central Ohio and my impression of Delaware County must be way off base. I drive my kid to a friends house up there about 2x a week. Driving through Polaris, down Old State, I see million dollar homes and luxury stores. Down thru the dam I see well dressed people running, walking pure bred dogs, etc.
In fact, a good friend of mine lived in Delaware Co. and moved up north to Mt. Gilead to raise her kids in a more realistic atmosphere.
I guess there must be an older population in Delaware that is less visable.

April said...

@anonymous: South Delaware County is very wealthy (although some of those big houses have foreclosure notices tacked to the door). The rest of the county's income levels are quite modest. Our food bank, free store, medical clinic, and legal clinic are all used predominantly by Delaware county residents.

Delaware has always done a "good job" of hiding poverty. Too good, in my opinion. There a lot of locals who are just getting by or not getting by at all.

A comment on those shopping at Polaris: judging by the shoplifting arrests, many Polaris shoppers are from Columbus! ;-)