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Guest column: Ending poverty takes more than charity

Guest column: Ending poverty takes more than charity

It is systemic problem that needs comprehensive solution
Guest column: Ending poverty takes more than charity
A meeting with the Capital Region Truth Commission on Poverty in July.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER

This is the time of year that, as many of us gather close with family and loved ones, we consider the ways we can help those among us who are struggling.

We make donations to local charities, we volunteer, and we serve meals at soup kitchens.

These efforts to serve our neighbors and communities are admirable, to be sure, and they often provide an essential lifeline.

However, if we truly desire to end poverty in our communities, we must recognize that these acts of charity are not enough — and cannot be enough.

By recognizing that poverty is a web of systems and structures that marginalizes and disempowers whole groups of people, we can begin to imagine changes to those systems and structures that might end the scourge of poverty.

Our legislative process and our advocacy campaigns are often siloed to individual issues — the affordable housing campaign, the anti-hunger bill, the public education rally, the healthcare reforms. 

But for people in poverty, these issues are deeply connected.

Poor families are making decisions every day between food and housing, transportation and that doctor’s appointment that keeps getting put off, and taking a second job to pay the bills or staying home to care for the kids.

For many people, these issues are not distinct.

By listening to the stories of the people who are most directly affected by systems of poverty, we can begin to conceive of the scope of the changes necessary.

They are the experts on poverty because they live it daily.

That’s why back in July, we gathered with 150 people from the Capital District for a Truth Commission on Poverty, hearing testimony from people on the front lines of these crises.

Their stories elicited deep emotions: sadness and heartbreak, frustration, anger and shame that our society could carry on while people struggle like this.

But sad stories weren’t all we heard. We also heard stories of resistance to these systems.

Minimum-wage workers who risked everything to join the Fight for $15 are raising wages for all low-wage workers in New York.

Families that have suffered in the criminal justice system were leaders in the efforts to raise the age of criminal responsibility and are now fighting to end the torture of solitary confinement.

Union members are taking on the largest corporations in the world to fight for fair contracts. Advocates and educators for queer and trans people of color who continually suffer discrimination and marginalization are fighting every day for dignity and respect.

We cannot solve these crises with charity, however well-intentioned we may be.

Connecting our struggles, trusting and following the leadership of the poor in a movement to end poverty, and refusing to perpetuate systems of poverty and inequality are our only hope as a society. In the last year of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. began to build a Poor People’s Campaign to end poverty, led by the poor themselves.

This coming year, the 50th anniversary of his death, the same crises remain, and we intend to continue his work.

We hope you’ll join us.

Learn more about the Truth Commission on Poverty and the new Poor People’s Campaign on Tuesday, Nov. 28, from 7-9 p.m. at the First United Methodist Church in Schenectady, or by visiting nytruthcommission.org and poorpeoplescampaign.org.

Rev. Horace Sanders Jr. is the pastor at Mt. Olivet Missionary Baptist Church in Schenectady. Rev. Dustin Wright is the pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church in Schenectady and president of the New York State Council of Churches.

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