Seeing in a New Light
Growing up, I had the privilege of always having a roof over my head and being well fed. Still, money has also been a point of stress in my family’s life, and I remember times when we were struggling. When I was young, my brothers and I were sometimes on free and reduced lunches; however, it wasn’t until I was much older that I fully comprehended what that meant.
While it is clear to me now that my family was being affected by poverty on some level, when I was growing up, I didn’t understand. Maybe in part because I was too young, or perhaps I couldn’t see it because I lived in a majority white community, and my basic needs were still being met. Most likely, for a combination of all of these reasons, there was a disconnect from who my family is and what I perceived as “poor.”
The first time I remember intentionally thinking about poverty was on a high school service trip to Calgary. While there, we volunteered at a number of homeless shelters and soup kitchens doing different types of work, and I remember a conversation I had with one of the guests getting food over dinner. To my surprise, the man was very familiar with Montana, my home state. He had lived in the area and used to go fishing on the Bitterroot River, the very same river in my backyard and one that I had spent many summer days biking around and swimming in. As we talked, I began to wonder how he had gotten so far from the comfort of fishing on those waters we both knew so well.
Although ironic, it took me going away from home to begin thinking about poverty at home. Talking to the man made me think about poverty in a way I hadn’t experienced before. After all, he and I weren’t so different. He had been a part of my own community.
Later, when I left my home state for college, I was again pushed to new perspectives as I deepened my comprehension of the issues that cause poverty, injustice, and inequality through my coursework and campus experiences. And now, since last fall, I’ve found myself far from Montana in Washington, DC … where I’ve learned the most of all.
As a Lutheran Volunteer Corps member working for a year at Bread for the City, I’ve become immersed in the work of this organization and our mission to seek justice for DC residents living with low incomes.
The work we do at Bread for the City has changed the way I think about poverty in many ways. Most significantly, I’ve learned how traumatic the experience of poverty is. I’ve learned how poverty affects every part of one’s being. I’ve seen the resiliency of BFC’s clients and their ability to keep going. The staff, too, has their own resiliency. Their commitment to help and to continue to strive for racial equity gives me hope and my own drive to seek justice.
In just over two weeks, my year at Bread for the City will done, and as I think about what’s next, I am also thinking about how poverty affects those living in my home state. 13.3% of Montanans live in poverty, with one in every eight people struggling with hunger. 26% of Native Americans, 20% of Asian Americans, and 19% of Latinos (versus only 12% of white Montanans) live at the poverty line, and (just like here in DC) it’s easy to see there’s a disproportionate impact on people of color.
In a study done by the Montana Food Bank Network, households on reservations had the highest poverty rates in the state: 85%, compared to 63% in urban areas and 69% in rural areas. To take a further look at just how significantly the Native American community is impacted by poverty, one can look at the children. A staggering 70% of Native American children are living in low-income families, compared to 39% of white children. Food insecurity rates are also up to 5% higher in counties with reservations. These numbers highlight the income gap between white and Native American communities in Montana, showing how the racial equity work Bread for the City strives for in DC is also needed in Montana.
I know I still have a lot to learn about poverty, why it exists, and the work needed to move toward a more racially equitable society. But one thing that will always stick with me from my time at Bread for the City is that no matter where we are coming from, most people share a common value: we all want justice and to be treated with dignity and respect. Bread for the City challenges me to listen more and to seek to better serve others, in DC, in Montana, and wherever else I might find myself.