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SUNDAY, OCTOBER 29, 2006
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OP-ED

Ending poverty in Alabama a matter of will

By Nick Foster

Like anyone else moving from one job to another, I have been telling my friends about the new work I am undertaking as the executive director of The Alabama Poverty Project. "Oh, yeah? What does The Alabama Poverty Project do?" they ask.

"Well," I say, "the purpose of The Alabama Poverty Project is to work for the reduction and eventual elimination of poverty in Alabama."

More than once the response has been laughter.

I know, of course, what that laughter — and some knowing half-smiles — is about. It's outrageous to think that we might see the end of poverty in our lifetimes, and in Alabama of all places. Poverty is an especially intransigent reality of life, or so it would seem.

But I am convinced, as is the APP Board of Directors, that such a goal is within our reach. I believe that seeing such a dream come to fruition is not a matter of adequate resources, but one of will.

The primary avenue the APP will follow is education. We will conduct and encourage research that helps illuminate the causes and consequences of poverty.

We are continuing to expand partnerships with the state's colleges and universities, to develop courses and practical experiences of service that will encourage the effective, practical study of poverty.

We will seek to address our elected officials, to share information and to encourage transformative policies that support all citizens in our common needs for adequate income, education and health care.

And we will take every opportunity available to speak to members of the general public — at churches, to civic groups, even at informal gatherings, sharing what we know even as we seek to learn more ourselves.

In fact, one of my first tasks in my new position is to educate myself further about these concerns. Part of that education is taking place in these initial conversations I have with friends, family and new acquaintances. I'm discovering that pretty much everyone has an opinion about poverty. Car salesmen, pest controllers, home repairers, teachers, lawyers, professors, ministers, bureaucrats, social workers, bookkeepers, engineers, retirees and children of all ages — everybody has an opinion about poverty, its causes and possible solutions.

I have something to learn from all of them. Opinions matter. But opinions without information often cause us to make bad decisions

Listening to others causes me to again realize what a complicated issue poverty is. For instance, latest figures show that close to 300,000 people in Alabama, living below the federal poverty line, are without health insurance. There are more than 70,000 children in our state without health coverage.

Keeping health care affordable is of increasing concern to most Americans. With costs rising, causing many employers to cut back or eliminate coverage for their employees, even those among us who have considered health insurance a "given" are facing the possibility, or the reality, of no longer having what has been considered a certainty. While writing this I saw a news story that featured a truck driver for whom 40 percent of his paycheck goes to health coverage.

No one yet has been able to propose a workable solution to this problem, at least not one that receives the kind of support it would take to implement such a framework. We all recognize that it's complicated and there is unlikely to be any simple answer.

So, when meeting such a basic need as health care is becoming increasingly difficult for those of middle class income, what do we do for those whose income is at the lowest end of the spectrum?

It's complicated. But it is not unsolvable. It's a matter of priorities. A matter of concern. A matter of will.

No one will say that poverty is a good thing. We all would love to see its end. I think, though, that we see it as so intractable that we despair of ever eliminating poverty — in Alabama or anywhere else for that matter.

No wonder we might laugh at such an idea.

So what shall we do? It would be easy to give up, to assume there is little to nothing we can do. Such thinking often leads to simplistic perspectives; the poor are seen as lazy or irresponsible. But we all know that there are lazy and irresponsible individuals all across the spectrum of financial standing.

I cannot help but turn to the Bible for help. I am a minister after all. It's a "vocational liability." Jesus, in a section of scripture called beatitudes, says "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God."

Here's the thing: Who would not want to be a part of the kingdom of God? That is, who would not want to be a citizen of a place where all our cares and concerns are covered, where we can be sure that we are cared for, every need met?

Jesus says the poor have an inside track to finding their way to such a place. I suspect that is because the poor are very familiar with their need. The wealthier we become, the more we are able to meet our every need and most of our desires, the less likely we are to feel vulnerable, in need of anyone.

That attitude reveals a poverty of spirit, one that fails to recognize that we are of one community. To recognize that kind of poverty in ourselves may just save us. Because to develop the will needed to eliminate poverty in Alabama will require that we identify with the poor, seeing ourselves as one among them, our sisters and brothers. Then we will not be able to keep ourselves from this quest.

That may just be the beginning of the end of poverty in Alabama. Can you see it?

Nick Foster is the executive director of The Alabama Poverty Project (www.alabamapoverty.org); Email:
director@alabamapoverty.org.

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