CONTRIBUTORS

How do we see the poor, or do we see them at all?

Posted Dec. 17, 2012, at 1 p.m.

As a social worker in this community over the past three decades, I have seen the resources allocated to those living in poverty rise and fall. In recent years, there has been a steady downward spiral. At both federal and state levels, budgets cuts are being made that severely jeopardize the well-being of our most vulnerable citizens.

It is difficult to witness the current congressional debate on who will receive a tax break, knowing that the income of the top 1 percent of wealthiest Americans has risen close to 75 percent in the past 30 years. At the same time, the income of those on the lowest rung of the ladder has seen only a 1-percent increase.

The number of people who are struggling just to survive is growing larger each day. Their days are spent with concerns other than tax breaks. They have to deal with obtaining adequate food; locating decent, affordable housing; searching for employment; and accessing healthcare.

Who are these people who lack security and basic necessities?

They are single moms with toddlers who are losing their already meager benefits from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families because their allocated time has simply run out.

They are people with disabilities trying to obtain income benefits, who are facing endless application and appeal processes with Social Security.

They are the homeless veterans who have served multiple tours in Iraq who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and sleep outdoors.

They are young women fleeing domestic violence, forced to give up home and economic security and now fearing for their lives.

Are these people among the deserving poor? Or the undeserving poor? Are they in the 47 percent that do not pay taxes and are a drain on our economy? Who do we see when we look at these people?

When we see the young woman with a few small children in tattered clothing by her side at the grocery store, paying with food stamps, who do we see? Do we see a woman milking the system, having children only to get more money for herself? Or do we see a mother juggling college courses and holding down a part-time job, trying to make ends meet?

When we see the thin, worn faces of the countless young men on the evening news who have been arrested for burglary, who do we see? Do we see a useless junkie, a calculating thief, who would rather steal than earn a living? Or do we see our neighbor’s son who lost his job, got evicted and desperately needs treatment for the disease of addiction?

I am reminded of the question Jesus posed to his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” I often wonder how these people are seen by those who craft the federal and state budget plans. Or if they are seen at all.

Perceptions, values and priorities dictate how state and federal budgets are developed. These budgets are moral documents because they are clear expressions of our society’s priorities.

Do your values support a budget that increases the wealth of the top 2 percent at the expense of those in need? Can we go about our business each day, pretending that people living in poverty don’t exist? Can we give charity and continue to be blind to issues of justice? How can any one of us feel secure when so many have no security at all?

Cuts to supports for our most vulnerable citizens are unacceptable. Viable alternatives must be pursued: Close tax loopholes, restore higher tax rates for the top 2 percent, roll back military spending, get out of the business of war, confront pharmaceutical monopolies, end big oil subsidies — the list goes on.

Our voices are critical in the political process. We are at a pivotal juncture because fiscal decisions will be made soon. We must work to resist the powerful influences that will dictate priorities that privilege those who are already privileged.

During this season of Christmas, as we celebrate the birth of a homeless baby without a roof over his head, loudly proclaim to your senators and representatives that protecting the most vulnerable is the only way to real security for all.

Mary Ellen Quinn, of Winterport, is co-coordinator of Pax Christi Maine, a region of the Catholic peace and justice organization Pax Christi USA, and a licensed social worker serving people in greater Bangor for the past 30 years.

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