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Can You See The Face Of The Poor?

by Fr. John Rausch

    Traveling rural roads in nearly any state visitors frequently overlook the invisible poor. They notice satellite dishes next to trailers and newer-than-jalopy cars parked nearby. Life in rural America appears like life in Anywhere, U.S.A.

Popular images of poverty jump from the pages of magazines, where old ideas about poverty cloud the subtle expressions of rural poverty today. The shack on the back road has become a mobile home that rusts and fully depreciates in 20 years. The satellite dish, bought on time, may no longer function. Today rural poverty wears a subtle face etched with the lines of personal struggle and the wrinkles of an economic system indifferent to the needs of the poor. The face of rural poverty becomes more visible by uncovering the hurts and injustices through a few profiles.

Donna choked back tears as she told how her six-year marriage ended in divorce the year before. A hideous knife scar nearly the length of her left forearms testified to the life of violence she knew as marriage. Unable to focus her life, Donna moved between friends wearing thin her welcome as the months passed. The seductive urge of suicide stalked her when friends at her third residence finally asked her to leave. Penniless and depressed, Donna found herself homeless in a small town.

Homelessness frequently evokes urban images of men sleeping in doorways or pushing shopping carts down the street. Rural homelessness evades radar like a stealth fighter. It becomes hidden by overcrowding a relative's home when hard luck hits. Families frequently sleep in campgrounds or in their cars while in transit looking for work. At least 20 percent of the homeless school-aged children are not in school, because they move too frequently or lack proper clothing or have unmet health needs or have emotional problems or need to care for a sibling. Women and children swell the ranks of the rural homeless when violence, divorce, or economics disrupt their lives.

Andy and Norma worked the flea markets selling crafted items they made in their small woodworking shop. Having no credit, they went to a rent-to-own business to buy their major purchases. For $70 a month they took home a nineteen inch TV and a VCR. After a number of months the rent-to-own designated them as preferred customers and invited them to purchase an additional appliance. Norma chose a washer. Soon the financial burden began to strain their budget. They finally returned all the merchandise with only three payments left, and lost their entire investment.

People without credit have few economic options. Unable to get a bank loan they frequent check cashing outlets and rent-to-own businesses that charge usurious interest rates. They must buy every major purchase on time. The slippery slope of debt easily allows them to fall behind on rent and utilities. Shopping at Wal-Mart becomes a luxury. Instead, they buy cheap household items at dollar stores and thrift shops or go without.

The rural poor slip notice because truckloads of used clothing clog the thrift shops of churches and charitable organizations. Despite that clothing the rural poor still lack the healthcare denied 43 million Americans and suffer disproportionately from diabetes because of poor diet. They work for low or minimum wages and get trapped in part-time or temporary employment. They live paycheck committed and pray nothing break down. When they walk through town, their discounted clothing covers their insecurities and worries. Nobody notices them.

Read other articles of spiritual enlightenment in the July 1999 edition of The San Francisco Charismatics or return to the Main Menu by clicking on the blue. Fr. John Rausch, a Glenmary priest, teaches at the Appalachian Ministries Educational Resource Center, Berea, Ky. His column appears monthly in many Catholic journals and in ours beginning this month, courtesy of the Friends of the Good News. When you purchase books, videos, etc. from Amazon.com this site, we receive a referral fee from them that support the work of the Friends of the Good News.