Modern Day Poverty: Lessons from Les Mis

Les Mis Valjean prisonJean Valjean stole a loaf of bread to save a loved one from starving. Faced with no other option, I hope I would do the same. Les Mis portrays a brutal society with a gap the size of the Grand Canyon between the haves and the have-nots. Through his incarceration and the subsequent terms of parole, French society condemned Valjean to a life that he could not make better through honest work,  his survival dependent on sparse, unearned handouts.  Thank God we don’t live like that any more.

…Or do we?

In my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, 15.4% of the population live in poverty. We could feel proud of that because its slightly below the national average, but we should not. 15.4% equals nearly 200,000 people in this community. A household of three is struggling to live on less than $16,000 per year in a city where the average rent for a 2 bedroom apartment is approaching $900/mo.

People say that the poor are that way because they have no pride or work ethic, and that the state of their dilapidated homes and broken down cars is proof.  Heat or glass to replace the broken window?  A loaf of bread or repairing the fifteen-year-old car. Which would you choose?

Les Mis ThenardierBut many of my Facebook friends say that the poor don’t have to make that choice, pointing out that government handouts make it so people don’t have to work hard or improve themselves in order to get better jobs. Like the Thenardiers in Les Mis, I’m sure there are some people receiving benefits who prefer it to earning what is given, just I am sure some of the rest of us take advantage of free things are offered us. But consider this: the Ohio Benefit Bank, which assists individuals to obtain benefits for which they did not know they were qualified, has only existed a few years, and yet has already helped Ohio citizens receive over $1 BILLION in benefits.  If the poor’s strategy has been to live a comfortable life off the government, they certainly weren’t doing much to avail themselves of the handouts.

Still, the poor seem like “those other” people to us.  Those folks living in distant slums where we don’t go. At one time, that may have been true, but now the demographic statistics say otherwise. In my middle to upper-middle class neighborhood, 25- 35% of the households are below the poverty line. These are not anonymous people somewhere else. These are the people I see and talk to when I go for a walk. I don’t know which ones they are, but they are there. Families constantly on the edge of losing their home, picking and choosing which essential bills to pay this month, trying as hard as they can to stay in the “nice” neighborhood where their children can safely play outdoors and attend schools with adequate computers and text books. But a minor illness or car-trouble results in a lost part-time job, and the house of cards they have worked so hard to stay in comes crashing down. The temporary homeless shelters are operating vastly over capacity.

Les Mis TunnelI have no solutions. Poverty is complex and can’t be finally and completely solved. It’s not just the creation of jobs, but the location of the jobs, transportation to them, child-care, elder-care, and a whole panoply of obstacles individuals need to overcome to rise up from its grips.  In the most recent movie version of Les Mis, the homeless line a damp tunnel, as the horsemen travel past without seeing them.  There will always be poor in our world, but let’s not turn a blind eye. See them, be aware of their plight, and help reduce their obstacles when you can. It may have no overall economic impact, but it could be the encouragement someone needs to keep trying.

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