January, the coldest and darkest month of the year, is “Poverty in America Awarenes Month”.

According to a report released by the U.S. Census Bureau in August 2006, 9.9 percent of all families are living in poverty which amounts to 7.7 million families down slightly from 7.9 million in 2004.

As defined by the government and updated for inflation using the Consumer Price Index, the new poverty threshold for a family of four is $19,971; for a family of three, $15,577; and for a family of two, $12,755. Other studies have shown that Americans believe the current poverty threshold figure is unrealistic. A recent study conducted by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development shows that most Americans believe it takes closer to $35,000 annually to adequately house, clothe and feed a family of four.

Since I learned of poverty awareness month a few weeks ago, I’ve been collecting articles that relate to poverty.

First, there is a NIMBY attitude growing in Quincy toward the United First Parish Church’s soup kitchen. This church also hosts the Prison Book Program where I volunteer regularly so I know they play an important social role in the community.

Then there’s the controversy within the business community, which does not like the Quincy Center location. “They think it’s bad for business,” says the Rev. David Wooster, executive director of the Esther Sanger center. “My response is, would it be better for business if we closed and these people were on the streets, hungry and desperate?”

In more positive news, French activists are attempting to raise awareness of homelessness by setting up campgrounds in major French cities. They call themselves the “Children of Don Quixote” and hope to make housing a legal right in France.

Jean-Baptiste Legrand, a film producer and president of Quixote, says that, “No one who is human really likes this problem. Everyone talks about it a little bit, but no one really speaks loudly…. We just felt like in this country we shouldn’t leave people in the street.”

Understanding urbanization is the key to alleviating poverty in the future according to State of the World 2007: Our Urban Future, a study from the Worldwatch Institute. According to the report tha lack of environmental sustainability of cities is linked to poverty.

Unplanned and chaotic urbanization is taking a huge toll on human health and the quality of the environment, contributing to social, ecological, and economic instability in many countries. Of the 3 billion urban dwellers today, 1 billion live in “slums,” defined as areas where people cannot secure key necessities such as clean water, a nearby toilet, or durable housing. An estimated 1.6 million urban residents die each year due to lack of clean water and sanitation as a result.

In the United States, the issue of poverty is in the news in relation to the House of Representative recently passing an increase in the minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage is controversial because some people believe that it correlates to higher consumer costs and forces businesses to employ fewer people (my more cynical side feels that corporations will use just that excuse to raise prices and cut jobs). However, I believe it is important to raise the minimum wage because it is proven that the cost of living is so high that many people and families can barely make it even when payed more than the proposed minimum wage.

The Christian Science Monitor ran a couple of interesting articles on the minimum wage issue. The first discussed what life is like for typical Americans at minimum wage.

“Until you’re making $10 or $12 an hour, if you’re [a single-income household] with dependents, you’re going to have a really tough time making ends meet without public assistance,” says David Blatt, a poverty expert at the Community Action Project of Tulsa County, about 40 miles from Muskogee in the state’s northeastern section.

Next, an article that tells what happens in Massachusetts when the minimum wage is raised.

“Both critics and advocates of the minimum wage have exaggerated its effects,” says Isabel Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It doesn’t do a great deal of harm. At the same time, it’s no panacea for the low earnings of less-skilled workers.”

Obviously, raising the minimum wage is only the start of what can be done to help the poor and reduce poverty in the country. Personally, I believe poverty should be a central issue in political discussion and would support any candidate who runs on an anti-poverty platform. In fact, if any candidates or political parties are reading this they are welcome to borrow my Five Point Plan (easy to remember because it’s like the five fingers on the hand):

  • Nourishment — food and necessities to provide immediate relief to those living in poverty
  • Education — quality schooling for every child with equal opportunity for advanced education. Also education and training for poor adults in trades, language, and other necessary skills.
  • Jobs — secure jobs with living wages for all who need employment. No longer making it necessary for working parents to work multiple jobs for 80-120 hours a week just to break even. Allow for work-life balance, parents spend time with children, adults have time for education and other opportunities.
  • Health — health care and insurance should never be just a privilege of the wealthy.
  • Housing — safe and affordable homes for everyone.

Obviously I am a starry-eyed dreamer and I don’t have all the answers, but something needs to be done, and I think these are good points to start working toward a solution.

Edit: No sooner do I finish this post then do I find a snarky article with a good point by Barbara Ehrenreich about Washington, the state with the highest minimum wage in the US.

There is no moral justification for a minimum wage lower than a living wage. And given the experience of the 29 states that have raised their minimum wages, there isn’t even an amoral economic justification either.

And another commentary in Christian Science Monitor about Income Equity.

Roe v. Wade, 34

Yesterday was the 34th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that led to legalized abortion in the United States. I found a couple of reflections online that went beyond the usual rhetoric trotted out on this day and showed some insight on the controversy.

The first is Diana Butler’s column in the God’s Politics blog.

On this January 22, I am reminded that the Christian community has, for the most part, failed regarding abortion. Certainly, there are isolated examples of Christian care for the least when it comes to abortion. For the most part, however, we have given in to slogans and untenable philosophies. We do not bear transformative witness of hospitality to the “least of these” or prophetically challenge the disordered “relations of power” that plague our lives, churches, and society. Until we live in hospitality and justice, the world will continue to ignore abortion – thinking instead that Christians are more concerned with the ethics of potlucks than with the oppressed and powerless.

The second is this quote from Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia on Rocco Palmo’s Whispers in the Loggia.

“Christianity is not a police force,” he said. “There is no way in the world you can force people, because these are not God’s instructions. To challenge them, yes, to force them only by the compelling power of truth itself — not physical force.” When those challenged fail to listen, he said that the answer is simply to “pray for them, understand them in their weakness, try to convince them, strive to explain it well. And when we have explained it, we must explain it again and again and again.”

Free Admission Day at the MIT Museum

I never got around to officially making New Year’s resolutions, but one thing I had in mind in 2007 is to take more time enjoying the arts, culture, and museums available in the Boston area. I often feel I saw more of Boston before I moved here than I have in the past 8 years of living here. So I was happy to take advantage of free admission day to visit the MIT Museum in Cambridge.

It’s a lovely little museum with some nifty exhibits. I spent most of my time in the gallery which traces the development of artificial intelligence and robotics at MIT. There are some heavy duty topic in AI and the exhibit delves into them in detail. Still there’s a basic fascination about robotics that even the many children running around the museum could enjoy it.

Speaking of AI, I recently discovered A.L.I.C.E., a chatbot you may speak with online.

Other interesting galleries included the strobe photography of Harold Edgerton and a fun look at the cultural history of MIT. In addition, I joined in the Sea Chantey Sing. Totally unrelated to the exhibits, a circle of people gathered in a gallery of old microscopes and sang martime songs. This being Cambridge, everyone sang and sang well.

There is another Free Admission Day and Sea Chantey Sing coming up on Sunday Feb. 18, so I will have to return to explore and sing some more.

Almost completely unrelated, but connected with AI/robotics, Battlestar Galactica returned from midseason break on Sunday night. Since we watch the show on iTunes and have to wait for the artificial unintelligence to actually download I’ve still not seen the episode, but I’m looking forward to seeing the Cylons’ plan there way out of this one.