A friend of mine owns a convenient store in an urban environment. Because there are no grocery stores, this business is the main avenue for sustenance and activity within a 5-mile radius. I’ve hung out with him at work on many occasions, but last week he was short-handed and asked me to come and work with him for the day. It was an eye-opening experience. Many of my opinions and impressions of that neighborhood before this day were from a perspective of privilege. I used to have my friend text me when he had his first sale of alcohol for the day. We’d have a good laugh when it happened before 8 am. I was an ass.
On the surface, all of the stereotypes are true of the clientele, poor minorities living in a poor area. Drug deals going on outside. People scrounging together change to keep drinking all day. People stealing. Guys blowing all they have on lottery tickets, only to continue to lose what they gain. Others using food stamps to feed their children Cheetos and Red Bull. All of that was true.
But when talking with people, you understand the real story in that neighborhood and the underlying issues; there is always more than what you see.
There are systems in our country, economic systems, where the rich get richer and the poor… just stay where they are. I know none of this is mind-blowing or new, but it’s different when you begin to see the effects that our economy has on all of humanity. Dollars may separate us, but we are the same at our core – that often gets lost.
For those of us that live above the poverty line, we want our kids to go to good schools and grow up in good neighborhoods. It’s the American way to want to better yourself and move up that economic ladder. We’re taught to avoid the dirty, poor areas because they’re dangerous. If we don’t see the humanity in the poor and downtrodden, we’re missing everything. Things aren’t as simple as they may appear.
Why does the man drink all day? Because he’s an alcoholic? Possibly for some, but the underlying reason that drives him to drink is that he has no hope for anything better. He’s given up and this is the only thing that makes life bearable.
Why does someone spend all they have on lottery tickets? Because the only way they can change their station in life is wrapped up in a one in a million chance. So they keep trying, hoping to beat the odds.
Why does the woman who lives off food stamps, choose to feed her children only junk food? Because she doesn’t own a car, has never lived differently and there are no other options. Every one of us gets hungry, it’s just that some of us have better options and make our food choices along economic lines.
Why does the man deal drugs? Because this seems to be the only way to get ahead in life. In economically depressed areas, jobs are scarce. Even if there were minimum wage options, it’s hard to make ends meet on $7 an hour. Without options for a fair wage, why not take an option that generates cash regardless of the risk.
I am reminded of the wisdom of Solomon when he said:
Let beer be for those who are perishing,
wine for those who are in anguish!
Let them drink and forget their poverty
and remember their misery no more.
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy.
Solomon is telling us to look upon the poor and downtrodden with different eyes and is calling us to defend them. Too often we write off portions of society because they are not like us or because they make different choices. But we are not all so different.
With no hope, we as humans do the best we can in the environments in which we find ourselves. We do not choose where we are born or the lessons that this world teaches us, we just try to survive the best way we can. Put in a similar situation, with the lack of opportunity, little hope for the future and low means, I think most of us would live similarly. That being said, when we think of the ‘others’ in society, those who are not like us, we need to have eyes of compassion. Regardless of where we are in this world or on the economic ladder, we’re all just trying to get by and survive the best way we can.