In September 2013, a Wilder Foundation conversation,” Community Matters,” was held at the Wilder Center in St. Paul, starting with a bevy of statistics compiled by Wilder Research on the state of poverty in St. Paul, where 67,000 people live in poverty; of that, 25,000 are children. This computes to 24 percent of St. Paul’s population as opposed to 12 percent for the Twin Cities, or even Minnesota statewide. Were those figures alive and milling about inside the Excel Energy Center, they would fill it four times.
What is poverty? Poverty is not enough resources to meet the basics of day-to-day living: food, housing, transportation. Poverty is not having equal opportunities, connections, or access and knowledge to the tools to move from not having enough to having plenty.
Poverty is one in three children and 75 percent of those children qualifying for free or reduced lunches. Poverty is gaps in school reading standard results.
Poverty is an unemployment rate of 39 percent. For the foreign-born it is 35 percent unemployment; however, Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park outnumber St. Paul with a more diverse population of foreign-born and people of color. In St. Paul, poverty is at 48 percent for American Indians and 41 percent for African Americans.
What is poverty? Poverty “kills trust and hope.” Poverty is the “silent killer.” Poverty as a culture is a “way of life, a mind state,” a life without guidance or protection from guns, knives and brutality; a life that demands immediate gratification when delayed gratification may not come in time, if ever.
Poverty is not having the three stable legs to your stool: health, knowledge and resources. Or your three-legged stool of necessities: time, people and money on which to build a solid, stable lifestyle. Poverty is stress, not stability nor prosperity. Poverty is living 73 years instead of the expected average of 82. Poverty is seeing your seven-year-old client return for services as a pregnant 17-year-old. Poverty is vast inequities.
Poverty “is not self-inflicted.” People don’t choose poverty. Poverty is being invisible. People not in poverty — like the “glad-it’s-not-me” syndrome called Schadenfreude — choose not to look at poverty. Fear is their screen. They don’t see the “silent killer.” They don’t see the struggle. They don’t factor in the luck of being born or not born to single moms of color in a low-income strata, or among the 22 percent of our homeless, or in a family without intergenerational wealth.
In closing, Wilder President and CEO MayKao Y. Hang, who lived “15 years poor,” asks each of us to stop blaming those without bootstraps or boots and to give, to donate, to volunteer to end this scourge of St. Paul, the beautiful city.
All quotes and figures are courtesy of The Wilder Foundation.
Elizabeth Ellis is the mother of three grown children, a college graduate, a 10-year veteran of the Foreign Service and a native of the Twin Cities. She welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.