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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Universe of the Anawim

There was a celebration of sorts last night, right outside in my front yard.

With the rise of the full moon last night came the official end of summer and the beginning of autumn. All of nature seemed to rejoice at the change of seasons.

The moon cast its light on the water while fish jumped in its path. An owl hooted from a tree somewhere, as a few gulls flew by the wide slash of light glistening on the marsh water to sing Hosannas to the Lord of Life. A few ducks contributed to their part in the choir, quacking occasionally from deep inside the marsh grass, as crickets and cicadas provided the rhythm and beat.

It was an incredible symphony, only lasting about fifteen minutes or so, but it was enough to significantly lift my spirits.

I have been thinking - brooding, actually - about the Census Poverty Report which indicates that one out of seven Americans live below the "official" Poverty Level.

Here's the Executive Summary of the data:
The data presented here are from the Current Population Survey (CPS), 2010 Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC), the source of official poverty estimates. The CPS ASEC is a sample survey of approximately 100,000 household nationwide. These data reflect conditions in calendar year 2009.
* The official poverty rate in 2009 was 14.3 percent — up from 13.2 percent in 2008. This was the second statistically significant annual increase in the poverty rate since 2004.

* In 2009, 43.6 million people were in poverty, up from 39.8 million in 2008 — the third consecutive annual increase in the number of people in poverty.

* Between 2008 and 2009, the poverty rate increased for non-Hispanic Whites (from 8.6 percent to 9.4 percent), for Blacks (from 24.7 percent to 25.8 percent), and for Hispanics (from 23.2 percent to 25.3 percent). For Asians, the 2009 poverty rate (12.5 percent) was not statistically different from the 2008 poverty rate. (1)

* The poverty rate in 2009 (14.3 percent) was the highest poverty rate since 1994 but was 8.1 percentage points lower than the poverty rate in 1959, the first year for which poverty estimates are available.

* The number of people in poverty in 2009 (43.6 million) is the largest number in the 51 years for which poverty estimates have been published.

* Between 2008 and 2009, the poverty rate increased for children under the age of 18 (from 19.0 percent to 20.7 percent) and people aged 18 to 64 (from 11.7 percent to 12.9 percent), but decreased for people aged 65 and older (from 9.7 percent to 8.9 percent). (2)

1 The poverty rate for Blacks was not statistically different from that of Hispanics.

2 Since unrelated individuals under 15 are excluded from the poverty universe, there are 460,000 fewer children in the poverty universe than in the total civilian noninstitutionalized population.
The longer I sat with these statistics, the deeper and darker the fog grew around me as I sank into a world of despair. Trying to find my way out, I fell upon an interesting term used by the folks at the Census Bureau: "poverty universe".

I had not heard that term before, have you?

"Poverty universe".

Interestingly enough, there is a handy-dandy page on their website called "Definition of Terms" where I found this explanation:
Persons for whom the Census Bureau can determine poverty status (either "in poverty" or "not in poverty"). For some persons, such as unrelated individuals under age 15, poverty status is not defined. Since Census Bureau surveys typically ask income questions to persons age 15 or older, if a child under age 15 is not related by birth, marriage, or adoption to a reference person within the household, we do not know the child's income and therefore cannot determine his or her poverty status. For the decennial censuses and the American Community Survey, poverty status is also undefined for people living in college dormitories and in institutional group quarters. People whose poverty status is undefined are excluded from Census Bureau poverty tabulations. Thus, the total population in poverty tables--the poverty universe--is slightly smaller than the overall population.
Imagine! Having your own "universe" because you're poor.

I wondered if this "universe" was created to identify people who are in it, or to help construct a barrier to make sure they stay there.

Apparently, the Census Bureau does not use the term "working poor." The "working poor", their web page explains, "may mean different things to different data users, based on the question they are trying to answer, such as:
* People who worked, but who, nevertheless, fell under the official definition of poverty.

* People who were in poverty and had at least one working family member.

* People who may not necessarily be "in poverty" according to the official measure of poverty, but who fall below some percentage of the poverty level (for instance, 200 percent of poverty).
o Percentages of the poverty level are referred to as "Ratio of income to poverty"" in our Detailed Poverty Tables.

o "Below 100% of poverty" is the same as "in poverty."

o "Below 200% of poverty" includes all those described as "in poverty" under the official definition, plus some people who have income above poverty but less than 2 times their poverty threshold.
The 'working poor', apparently, live in another universe of their own.

In her book, Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich decides to see if she can learn anything about this world of service workers and their “living wage” - the "working poor."

At the time, she was already a well-published author and wrote for the New York Times. Yet she was concerned that simply looking at charts and statistics about working poverty would miss the point of the issue, miss the human heart which beats and aches beneath.

So she set out to do a little old-fashioned investigative journalism. She moved around the country, pretending to be someone else – a newly divorced woman in her late forties with no dependents, no money, and no education – something becoming ever more common.

Ehrenreich is a great storyteller and she tells the tale of her entry into the universe of the working poor with great urgency and passion and clarity. She does all sorts of things, exhausts every option available, and finds herself unable to earn a living wage.

Turns out, you can't "live" on a minimum wage - which I expect people who are the "working poor" and those who live in the "poverty universe" already know. All too well, I fear.

Jesus had a word for those who live in the "poverty universe". He called them "anawim" which is a Hebrew word that means "the poor seeking God for deliverance." This Hebrew word is often used in the Psalms, including Psalm 37:11, which reads, "Blessed are the anawim (often translated 'meek') for they shall inherit the earth."

We hear Jesus echo the words of this psalm as one of the Eight Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3-12)

Blessed. Blessed are the anawim. Blessed is the Universe of the Anawim.

He also called them 'beloved' which is part of the evidence Liberation Theologians present for what they call the "preferential option" of Jesus for the 'anawim' - the poor and the outcast.

As a child, I spent a great deal of time with my grandmother who understood poverty from her own experience growing up in a village in Portugal where she lived in a house with no heat or running water. She was, by our government's definitions, part of the 'poverty universe'. She came to this country and 'upgraded' her status to 'the working poor'.

We didn't know we were part of that socioeconomic class, but looking back, I see we, in fact, were. We just knew that we were immigrants, whose realities often coincide and overlap with the universe of 'the poor' and that of 'the working poor'.

Several times a year, she would gather up clothes - hers, her husband's and her children's - to see what she might repair and recycle and what she might be able to give to the church for distribution to "the poor".

I remember her making the decision to contribute a perfectly good coat which none of my aunts or cousins could fit into any more. I watched as she snipped all of the buttons off the front of the coat and then put them into one of the deep pockets.

Confused, I finally stopped her to ask what she was doing. She said, "I am not just giving a poor person a coat. I am giving her some dignity. Some pride."

I still didn't understand. "She will look at this coat and her heart will rise when she sees it," my grandmother began to explain. "Then, she will notice that it has no buttons, and her heart will be sad. But, if she's smart, she will look into the pockets for the buttons where she will find not only mere buttons, but a chance to reclaim her dignity and her pride."

"After she sews the buttons on herself, that coat will be hers. She has done something to make it her own. She will know that just because she is poor, she is still a child of God."

I should note that my grandmother was not a Republican. She was a registered Democrat. More importantly, she was a devout follower of Christ.

I don't pretend to know much about the universe - or the various universes in which people live who struggle to eek out - I really only know about my universe from what I read in the teachings of Jesus.

I learn that we shall be blessed and inherit the Realm of God when we understand that poverty, ultimately, is in our own soul. We are all 'poor in spirit'. Embracing that knowledge forms and inextricable bond with those who are poor in possessions or basic needs like food, shelter and love.

That embrace of others - of the anawim of Jesus - makes us hunger and thirst for justice and the liberation promised by Christ.

Jesus teaches that when we turn our hunger and thirst for justice into random acts of kindness, we shall be deeply satisfied - beyond the food or water that may fill our bodies.

He also teaches that when we are merciful and give generously, like bread cast upon the water, mercy returns to us, full measure, pressed down and overflowing.

It begins with understanding that while our individual day-to-day realities are different, we are all citizens of the same universe, living under the same sun and moon, the same sky and millions and billions of stars.

We are all children of the One, same God, who delights to see all His creatures delight in the simple gifts of Her creation.

As the moonlight delights to dance on the waters of the marsh, giving cause for fish to jump while the owl, duck, gull and crickets perform in a Symphony for the Change of Seasons, it is God's delight that we work together to take down the barriers of our individual realities, so that we all may be one with the One who made us to share this universe.

It's time - the season, I think - to check my closets for some coats.


Suzer said...


I despair daily of the news (rather, what our media currently calls "news" -- read the latest on Lindsey Lohan's drug test status), and then I come here and find the real news. Thank you for that, Elizabeth.

We saw "Winter's Bone" over the weekend, and it would fit nicely into the topic here. If you have a chance and haven't yet seen it, add it to your "must see" list.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Suzer. Will do.

eileen said...

Add my amen to the chorus.

Lauren said...

Elizabeth, I am a member of the poverty universe, and have been ever since I became an Appointed Missionary. So these numbers for me are not numbers, but reality. If it had not been for the extreme generosity of friends, families and strangers, I have no idea what I would have done.

The whole idea of allowing this kind of poverty in our midst is a travesty ...


Christian Paolino said...

The Monks of Weston Priory preached about that woman's experience when we were there, including how employees at Wal-Mart are not allowed to sit down and can only use the restroom at their designated breaks.

And to think, they are still blessed compared to how the vast majority of the world lives! We just don't have any excuse for letting anybody be treated that way. It doesn't "cost" anything to allow people their dignity.