Years ago, when we were living near Rochester, New York, it was pointed out to me that poverty in rural areas was often worse than in cities because people were more isolated and there were fewer services. That winter I contacted an outreach coordinator who had put out a call for warm clothing. I offered to drop off some clothes we no longer needed.
The coordinator, an African American, believed deeply that dropping off clothes was not the same as understanding what the need was. She herself had grown up in a family of migrant farm workers and was acquainted with grief. When she was small, I later learned, her family had even been assigned to a chicken coop for their housing.
The coordinator knew a family who needed my clothes, and she thought I should go with her to make the delivery. Somewhat reluctantly, I agreed.
I will never forget the wary, beaten-down look in the eyes of a young woman living with family members in a tumble-down old house. After handing over the donation, the coordinator and I hung around for a brief, awkward chat. I could see that my contribution could not scratch the surface of the family’s need and was mostly for my conscience (which is not a reason to give up on donations, of course).
The main thing that has changed in the America in 30-plus years is that greater percentages of Americans are poor.
That is why some photojournalists, outraged at the lack of serious coverage in the mainstream media and recognizing that a picture is worth a thousand words, have founded an organization to fight poverty called American Poverty. See their recent photos here.
Perhaps you know the work of Walker Evans and James Agee in the Great Depression. The photographers’ new antipoverty site may, like Walker and Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” provoke the question, “Is this America?”