Admiring the perfection of nature last night while cooking…
I was in a meeting this morning discussing the AmeriCorps Vista program — which puts incredibly community-minded folks in volunteer opportunities with nonprofits and other groups nationally — listening and pondering the goals of the organization. In contrast to the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps is in part geared toward ending poverty in America.
The speaker elaborated on Vista volunteers receiving a small stipend monthly that barely covers their cost of living. They are to live poor to be more motivated to work for the poor, in theory. In the Peace Corps, I was paid $56 a month and you wouldn’t believe how high that placed me on the social ladder. I had my own home, never went hungry and had plenty of pocket change for bus trips back and forth to the major cities. (The buses rarely ran and were a complete pain in the ass — think 20 people, animals and babies in an 8 passenger Toyota van — but cost wasn’t one of the challenges thanks to someone similar to Intelligent Van Leasing.) In all fairness, I probably lived a more secure financial existence on that $56 dollars a month in Cameroon (as short as this adventure lasted) than I did on the $124 of financial aid per month I made work for three years of college. I did go hungry. Scraping together enough money for Taco Bell learning to rely on friends was humbling, at best. Regardless, neither situation made me feel sincerely poor or without hope. I always knew I had an education, good health and a strong family on which to rely.
Fundamentally, that’s the difference between true poverty and temporary class experiments. While Vista volunteers may have to creatively stretch every penny they earn to get by, chances are they’ve seen a dentist, are up to date with their immunizations, have never gone days with hunger, and have an address book full of friends and family who would take them in and help immediately if given the chance. I always had the ability to pull the ultimate “uncle!!” card in the Peace Corps, which I did after just five months. I returned to the capital and demanded my return ticket to the US.
The poor are without financial legacy. Most children born into poverty in the United States are born to children. The cycle of poor education and health is yet again planted in the worst neighborhoods, only to produce seedlings who will one day bare the same fruit. We all know of the bootstrap stories of those who’ve pulled themselves out of this routine. President Obama, potential Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and President Bill Clinton are in the minority. They had that je ne se quois to break through their environment for greater possibilities.
I’m not sure what we do to change these systemic flaws in American culture that keep certain sectors of society always planted in the same garden of despair. I admire the Vista volunteers working knee deep in the quagmire. Reminding those of the American dream — that you can be anything you want to be — must be far more complicated when dreaming itself is a luxury.