As we graduate college and begin our first job, many of us find ourselves in cities full of affluence and poverty that coexist in stark contrast. Rural poverty is just as devastating. And as Kurt Jaros points out, we will even encounter poverty in the suburbs, the neighborhoods that were once supposed to represent the fulfillment of the American Dream.
Often, we focus on the most distressing examples of international poverty, forgetting that individuals in our own communities may be experiencing malnutrition, poor education, and homelessness. But as young professionals trying to figure out how to thrive in the “real world,” poverty in our own communities is something that we can’t ignore.
A cursory glance at my hometown in New Jersey reveals a very affluent area. Wide streets, reclusive suburban neighborhoods, expansive public parks, exclusive country clubs—we are the typical New York City commuter town.
But drive ten minutes over to the next town and the affluence fades into tiny beach homes that have been transformed into full-time, four-season homes. Many of them are in an almost-dangerous state of disrepair, even though it is obvious that large families are living there. Trash and debris fill tiny yards and inlets that lead out to the ocean.
It’s not a terrible neighborhood, but I don’t have to go there and I usually choose to avoid it. I can because I am privileged. I grew up in a wealthy town and can choose to live in an affluent area today. I don’t have to confront poverty unless I choose to. For individuals who can’t afford to live in their neighborhood of choice, that option isn’t there.
Many of us don’t recognize that poverty exists around us because of our privilege. If we want to help, we often have to first make a conscious choice seek it out.
It sounds so easy, but giving effectively actually takes a lot of thought. How can you know that your money is actually helping people? How do you know that the organization you want to help is actually effective at empowering people to become independent rather than creating a culture of dependence?
These tips can help:
Do your research: Understand which organizations exist in your community and then determine which provide long-term solutions to poverty. How are they run? Which have changed lives most effectively? Which have missions that you really believe in?
Commit: Once you find a local organization that you would like to support, commit to it. Don’t just give a few dollars for its fundraising campaigns; consider giving monthly. Resist the temptation to support five different organizations at once. Instead, focus your money on one organization, adding one or two more only when you know you can consistently and successfully contribute to what you have already committed to.
Volunteer: Volunteering at the organization you support makes you be more invested in its mission. You will better understand how your giving is helping to make a difference for the individuals that you are working with.
If you attend a local church, understand what it does to alleviate poverty in the local community. Perhaps it already works with a number of nonprofits in your neighborhood. If that is the case, working with your church to support these efforts might be more impactful than donating to or volunteering for an organization by yourself. Or perhaps your church has never been involved in poverty relief in the local community. In that case, it may be appropriate to provide some leadership in directing some of your church’s resources toward that area.
It can be tutoring, counseling, or showing hospitality. Often, we think of poverty relief as giving money or even volunteering for an hour every week. These are all very important ways that we can be helping others. But sometimes in our busyness to help, we forget to invite the people we are helping into our lives, to regard them as friends. Poverty is so much more than financial difficulty; it becomes a mentality, a label, an identity, and perhaps a destiny of exclusion or loneliness. Sometimes an impoverished individual needs more than material provision or a kind smile; he or she needs fellowship and friendship as well.
If there is poverty in your community, it may not be as obvious as the poverty that you see halfway across the globe. No matter how veiled it is, however, it still hurts. Looking beneath the surface, meeting material needs, tapping into networks, and investing in meaningful relationships are all ways to seek healing, connection, and friendship in the place you currently call “home.”