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The Great Heart

Poverty is bigger than any single nonprofit social service organization, bigger than all of the nonprofits combined.

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The poverty figures cited in the cover story this week are grim enough, but not as grim as those yet to come. The figures were calculated before the enormous meltdown in the national economy. Just think what the numbers will show given the spate of corporate bankruptcies, state and local budget cuts, job layoffs, and enormous declines in income.

Moreover, the figures are based on an antiquated definition of poverty developed in the early 1960s and pegged to the cost of food, when food represented about one-third of household expenditures. Poverty thresholds then represented about 50 percent of median household income.  Today, food expenditures represent only about one-seventh of household spending with housing, child care, health care and transportation absorbing a much larger share of expenditures.  The consequence is that poverty thresholds now represent only about 29 percent of median household income. President Obama announced recently, however, that a new federal guideline for poverty will be developed next year. Given the current flawed method of defining poverty, the National Center for Children in Poverty decided to use low income as a measure of economic hardship with low income defined as twice as much as the federal poverty level. 

The U.S. Census classifies as poor a four-person family whose income is no more than about $22,000. Low income as defined by the poor children's center would be families earning $44,000 or less. Unfortunately, the census income categories don't aggregate neatly such that one can examine families earning no more than $44,000, only those earning no more than $50,000. Rather than inflate the number, I examined the number of families whose income is $35,000 or less. Doing so led to the finding that 12 percent of all families in Chesterfield County are low income. In Henrico County, it's 18 percent. City figures are staggering at 36 percent. Remember, these figures predate the housing and economic meltdown.

Numbers, percentages, guidelines, thresholds and estimates can numb our senses. Poverty discussed in such terms stuns us, but doesn't change us and our community. When poverty is given a human face, however, when poverty is linked to a family member, friend, former colleague at work, an elderly person served by the nonprofit organization where we volunteer, when poverty is made personal it takes on a whole new dimension. 

Poverty has absorbed much of my attention as an academic. Yet, I doubt that I would have been so drawn to the subject were it not for the impoverished children I met as I made my rounds delivering bags of toys at 4 a.m. on Christmas Day as a volunteer with a local civic group. Those memories are vivid still. Then there are the men and women I've met through Richmond Metropolitan Habitat for Humanity, William Byrd Community House, Caritas and my church's Monday noon meal ministry. Their daily struggles lead some to despair and resignation, but others are testaments to human endurance whose remarkable faith and indomitable spirit humble me.

Poverty is bigger than any single nonprofit social service organization, bigger than all of the nonprofits combined. It's bigger than the business community. But it is not bigger than a great gathering of churches, synagogues, mosques and Richmonders of goodwill everywhere who join together and resolve to attack poverty with full force. The moral authority of such an assemblage would trump the stark realities discussed in this week's cover story. Heart work when translated into hard work can work wonders.

At the conclusion of the movie, “Tora, Tora, Tora,” the Japanese planes had returned to the aircraft carriers after completing their bombing run at Pearl Harbor. The pilots, the seamen and the officers of the fleet were jubilant over the success of the mission and the heavy destruction sustained by the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Commanding Admiral Yamamoto, however, upon hearing the result of the raid, did not celebrate, but said with a look of dread in his face, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”

The great heart of Richmond is akin to a sleeping giant. What if this giant were to awaken and be filled with a great resolve. Nothing could stop it. This place would be changed. Individual lives, community life, all of metropolitan Richmond would be transformed. The barriers that separate the poor from the rest of us would dissolve. Public transit would extend to every quarter of the metropolis and connect the jobless with employment. Affordable housing would be available to all who need it. Concentrated poverty would give way to mixed-income, racially integrated neighborhoods and children from all walks of life would attend the same schools. Strangers and refugees from every corner of the globe would be welcome.

We know what human hearts can produce. We've got plenty of evidence. Talk to anybody whose life has been altered by compassion and mercy. Just think of the evidence if hundreds of congregations and individuals throughout this great city embarked on missions of kindness and demonstrated an unbreakable resolve to do justice and build a city of grace and love.

John V. Moeser is senior fellow at the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond and emeritus professor of urban studies and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University. 

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