As students at Boston College, it can be easy to forget where we are. The Heights can become a sort of bubble, as we get caught up in our classes and other activities and we forget the existence of places that aren’t Gasson, O’Neill or Conte.
However, as the name of our school suggests, we are essentially in Boston and just miles from our cushy campus is a bustling metropolis, where millions of people lead lives far less comfortable than our own. Indeed, as much as we discuss social justice and serving the poor in class, the fact that real-life poverty exists right at our doorstep can very easily elude us.
But try as we might to forget, the poverty in Boston is very, very real. According to the most recent Census data, one in five Boston families lives in poverty, defined as an individual with an annual income of $10,830, increasing slightly as household size grows.
Furthermore, more than half of Bostonians live at or below 400 percent of the poverty line, which is the income that the Crittenton Women’s Union has calculated is actually necessary given Boston’s high cost of living. And it’s gotten worse in the past twenty years, as the cost of living in Boston has outpaced the growth of the Federal Poverty Standard, meaning that today’s poor are, quite literally, poorer than those of 1990.
These figures, though, do little justice to the true state of affairs for Boston’s urban poor. As Stalin purportedly said, one death is a tragedy, one thousand a statistic; such is the case with poverty.
As you read the figures above, you were probably disappointed, and perhaps briefly lamented that so many citizens of the world’s wealthiest civilization should be in need, but we're likely not moved to sell all you have and give to the poor.
Frankly, neither am I so moved by reading research reports on the proliferation of urban poverty. But when I think of my visit to New York City over winter break, when I think of the homeless men, sitting on the street outside of Starbucks in the cold, it’s a different story.
Poverty, more than an economic term, is a sort of fog, a viral darkness that infects large portions of the urban population and turns hopeful children into bitter adults.
I recently read a book by Jonathon Kozol, who spent years talking to people in the South Bronx, America’s poorest congressional district, and though Kozol paints a vivid and disturbing picture of poverty in America, one particular anecdote stands out. Asked to write about her life, a nine (NINE) year-old girl poignantly and heartbreakingly wrote, “I am an acorn, I’m afraid of squirrels”.
The ghettos of America suffer not just from economic trauma, but a deeply ingrained cultural despair, conditioned in them by generations of being looked down upon as second-class citizens in a country that has forgotten them. How else could we explain a girl who has, at the age of nine, already learned to be afraid of everything in life? Did she do that to herself? Did her parents?
I didn’t understand Ancient Greek notions of communities determining morality until I read about the South Bronx. We’re not dealing with individuals who have made poor choices, we’re dealing with communities that have been historically underserved and systematically neglected by mainstream society, communities miles from our campus but a world away from our lives.
How can we accept this as sufficient? How can we tolerate decrepit hospitals and schools set up in prisons, rat-infested housing projects and neighborhoods devoid of hope in the most prosperous country the world has ever known?
How can you look at someone who spends their day being viewed by the wealthy as sub-human, someone reduced by circumstances to begging, literally, for their life, and tell her that you have better things to do?
At BC, we say we’re men and women for others. Let’s prove it.
A Jesuit community, we profess to act for the greater glory of God. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says that those who clothed him, who fed him, who took him in from the cold, will be those rewarded in the Kingdom of Heaven. Asked when it was that this happened, Jesus elaborates: “Whatever you did for the least among you, this you did for me.”
That’s what is asked of us: that we give ourselves to those less fortunate than we are and eradicate the pockets of despair in a world wrought of and sustained by love. It won’t be easy; poverty is evidently a complex policy problem, whose resolution will require leaders and scholars from the fields of health care, economics, education, business, politics, theology, and many more.
But we have all of those things; we have a business school, a nursing school, an education school, all of which are recognized as being amongst the best in the world. So why not put it to some use? We must, as a university, begin to formally explore how we can take a greater stake in our community, how our scholarly pursuits can further righteous causes, how we can heal the sick and raise up the downtrodden.
Indeed, how could a Jesuit community make anything less than a full effort to stamp out the social ills in our own backyard and still claim to be “doers of the word, not hearers only”? We hear a lot about problems; it’s time to do something.