Awareness and Compassion

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Awareness and Compassion
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The phrase Growing Food, Growing Awareness, Growing Compassion isn’t just a tagline for The University Church’s community garden, but a way of responding to issues like food insecurity and economic hardship. Along with providing fresh, healthy food for our community, we feel compelled to understand what poverty is, the official terminology surrounding it, and why it isn’t for us to judge someone else’s circumstances.
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Awareness is always a good place to start. Between 1999 and 2011, poverty for the state of Ohio rose by 57.7% (with only a 1% population increase), which is the third highest poverty increase in the nation.* For Toledo (both the city and wider metropolitan area), the poverty rate went from 17.9% in 1999 to 30.1% in 2011. In addition, within the last decade the amount of Toledoans living at or below the poverty level has increased by more than half, with one out of three people in poverty. Lucas County itself has the highest poverty rate in Northwest Ohio; at 19.5%, it actually exceeds the national average of 15%.
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These numbers show the extent of poverty in Toledo, but it also helps to know what they mean by “poverty” and the “poverty line.” The U.S. Bureau of the Census calculates poverty rates based on family size and income. In 1961 the Department of Agriculture created “economy” food plans” that determine how much money a family needs if it is simply to avoid malnutrition. Estimating that a typical family spends approximately one third of its income on food, the Census Bureau uses these “food plans” to set the standard for whether or not someone is officially recognized as living in poverty. For example, a family of five (two adults and three children) making $27,400 or less lives at the poverty line; if that same family were to make anything more than $27,400, it would not be counted in the poverty statistics, and would be unlikely to receive most social services intended to alleviate poverty. Some studies on poverty do take into account the ratio of a family’s income to federal poverty thresholds, providing a more comprehensive view of economic disadvantage.
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When trying to explain why poverty exists, we’re more orientated towards placing blame rather than trying to understand. So often we hear things such as, that person doesn’t work hard enough, she doesn’t make “good” choices, or he’s become too reliant on welfare to care about self-sufficiency. These explanations don’t fully account for the experiences of people actually struggling to make ends meet. That’s where compassion comes in. Looking at the individual, we see how opportunities for upward mobility such as education and well-paying jobs are more accessible to some people than others. It isn’t enough to know the extent to which poverty exists in our neighborhood. Nor is it enough to hand someone a bag of food and send them on their way. Instead of dividing the world into “haves” who must take care of the “have-nots,” we should listen to, value, and learn from those dealing with more challenging circumstances.
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Each person who walks through our door, whether a regularly tithing church member or a visitor at the Food For Thought mobile pantry, has their own story to tell. If we have enough compassion to listen – to both give and receive – then it isn’t just the garden that grows. Our selves, our community, and the individuals around us flourish through understanding, empathy, and love.
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*All statistics used in this post are taken from the following sources:
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1. “Poverty.” Greater Ohio.
http://www.greaterohio.org/files/policy-research/poverty.pdf
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2. Gianmarise, Kate. “Poverty Numbers for Toledoans Rose 53.3% Between 1999 and 2011.” Toledo Blade. 1 February, 2013.
http://www.toledoblade.com/local/2013/02/01/Poverty-numbers-for-Toledoans-rose-53-3-between-1999-and-2011.html
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3.“The Ohio Poverty Report: February 2013.” Ohio Development Services Agency http://www.development.ohio.gov/files/research/P7005.pdf
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4 Pimpare, Stephen. “Historical Perspectives on Poverty.” VISTA Campus. 27 October, 2011 http://vistacampus.org/file.php/37/PovertyInAmerica/Perspectives_on_Poverty_Webinar.pdf

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