While I was crawling amongst CAC's various tomato plants pulling clover, I thought about a story I read two or three years ago about the Howard County food bank. Unfortunately, I can't remember the writer (probably Lindsay McPherson), but they interviewed a CAC staff member who noted that due to the recession, many of the people who had previously been steady donors to the food bank were now coming back as customers.
CAC serves between 21,000 and 22,000 people per year, so it really shouldn't be a surprise that the boundary between donor and recipient is thin. Unlike the returns promised by the "free market", for the CAC, high level performance for a growing client base is not met with additional income. It means spent resources and doing more with less. As an example, CAC's Head Start program, the foundation for universal pre-K, has brought their students on par with students from wealthier parts of the County; an indescribably difficult feat considering the various elements of early education. Nevertheless, their budget was cut $100,000 last year. They had to close and consolidate.
But that's what made me think about the donor-client switch. No matter the wringing of hands, it is easy to cut back on "charity". In most households, I think it is safe to presume that "charity" will see the axe before cable television or nights out to eat. Charity is an optional, often hedonistic, duty. We are more likely to feel good in doing good than shame in forgoing it.
When I was running for re-election to the CA Board, I wanted to learn more about how we could serve the senior population. I met with a friend who had dedicated some time to the Senior Advisory Committee, but, more importantly, was an engaged, smart, and passionate member of our community. He told me "stop focusing on 'seniors'; in fact, just stop saying the word." He described that we all "aspire" to an advanced age. Anything you do for "seniors" you are really doing for the ever-aging population for that stage in life.
The inevitability isn't the same when working for the poor, but misfortune is indiscriminate in its path. They are us.
Here is where our conversation is stunted. In order to communicate "They are us" we need to relay that misfortune. Divorce, crippling back pain, chronic disease, failed investment, theft, late-career downsizing. And with misfortune comes the v-word. Victim. "Playing the victim."
"If I were in their shoes, I would just pick myself up by my boot-straps (as I always have) and get back to work."
And for some, when I describe the donor-turned-client, they think to themselves "Well if they were smart, they wouldn't have been spending money on food to donate. They clearly needed that money for themselves."
"If they were smart, they wouldn't have spent that time in the garden."
Some may see a title like "The Community Garden" as unintentionally ambiguous. It clearly is not. CAC didn't choose to name their garden "The Charity Garden" or "The Poor People Garden" or even "The Food Bank Garden". It is "The Community Garden" because the CAC treats poverty in the same way my friend wanted me to treat an aging population. Fluid and universal. If we all treated poverty and misfortune for what it is, a condition and not a classification, maybe CAC wouldn't have to worry about money.
That's all for now. Don't forget that I will be hosting an Online Town Hall Forum
Have a great Monday doing what you love!