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Pura/My Turn: Re-enlist in war on poverty

On Jan. 8, 1964, in his first State of the Union Address as President, Lyndon B. Johnson said, “Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope.” He was talking, of course, about the large number of Americans living in poverty. He then declared “unconditional war on poverty.” Fifty years later, poverty remains a national problem.

Poverty is the most violent force in our world today. It is the cause of more death, destruction and disease than any war or act of nature.

The poverty rate in 1964 was 19 percent; it fell to 12.2 percent in 2000 and then grew to 15.9 percent in 2012.

Today, 46.5 million people live in poverty in the United States of America:

∎ 15.4 percent of all women in this country live in poverty.

∎ 22 percent of our nation’s poor are children.

∎ 1.5 million veterans are at risk of homelessness due to poverty.

∎ 763,000 people in our commonwealth live in poverty today.

Those numbers do not include those who work, provide for children, rely on assistance for food and are one check away from homelessness

We have seemingly lost our way in the effort to combat poverty in these United States. To paraphrase Sr. Simone Campbell, we have shifted from a nation founded by the words “we the people” to one of increasing alienation and isolation. In his groundbreaking book “Bowling Alone,” author Robert Putnam shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors and our democratic structures. The image of “bowling alone” is all too real. Our nation’s collective response to the question of “am I my brother’s keeper?” is now all too clear.

In that same State of the Union speech, LBJ went on to say, “Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.” That is what we do every day at Greenfield Community College by opening the doors to higher education for all who seek to create a better life for themselves and their families. Our faculty and staff replace despair with hope.

We do not do that alone. GCC’s ability to keep our doors open to all is made possible by each and every member of this community. GCC is but a fiber in the tapestry of this collaborative and caring community. We are all so blessed with small and big businesses, schools, banks and health care systems committed to creating community one account, one customer, one student, one patient, one client — one person at a time. Our Community Action is to live in a United Way.

You might feel powerless to do anything about the level of poverty in our country or even in our state. But we can make a difference here in our community. It is in fact at the local level where we can find the most hope for change.

Money is always a help. So, too, is food, housing, health care, jobs and education. This community gives to their favorite organizations more significantly per capita than most in the state. Those organizations then provide the food, shelter, jobs and the education needed. It is by that level of giving and engagement that we begin reversing that dark downward spiral of poverty to one of light, hope and that of a widening gyre. In doing so, however, we are only addressing the symptoms (as significant and as needed as they are) but not the cause.

It is “community” itself, however, which targets the root cause of poverty. Community is the antidote to the alienation and isolation of poverty — and that remains this community’s greatest asset. It is impossible to let the family that you know next door go hungry, without heat or without a quality education for their children.

We might not be able to fix this nation’s economy. We can, however, realize that the very nature of who we are as a caring, giving and hardworking community is the most powerful weapon in the war on poverty. We can make a difference right here in our own backyard just by embracing “those people” as “we the people,” once again.

Robert Pura is president of Greenfield Community College.

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