Saturday, September 24, 2005

The Importance of Community Involvement

When I worked in the Third World we would occasionally issue "micro loans" to deserving mothers. This would be a loan for perhaps $150 US dollars to an enterprising mother. The woman would use the loan to buy vegetables or some other commodity in bulk. This product would be sold in a local market for a small but consistent profit. The money from that sale would be used to buy more product at wholesale and that product would be sold. The woman was required to have a business plan and proven ability to manage a small stall at market. Over a period of time the initial "microloan" would be paid off, sometimes in installments of as little as $5 a week. In many cases the women paid off the loan quite early, after only a few months. This money would then be loaned out to other women for the same purposes. This was years before the global World Bank discovered the significance of such a simple technique.

For the men I would give out a small sack of high-quality seed soybeans. The men could only have the soybeans if they proved they had a place to plant the beans. The men also had to be married and living with their wife. It was also important that the couple had children. The gift of soybeans was accompanied by a lesson in organic farming and given out only around the correct time of the month and year for planting. The beans were a gift from my Uncle Allen, a soybean farmer and speculator.

The rich, riding in giant four-wheel drives, drive past these people quickly. Tinted windows make it difficult to see those living in squalor. They try not to drive in these neighborhoods but it becomes necessary as the ghettos expand.

To people living in developed Western nations the significance of $150 or a sack of soybeans cannot be comprehended. People in the United States or northern Europe can earn $150 in a few days and easily spend it on a new coat or groceries for the next two weeks. In rural India or Haiti $150 is more than a person might ever see at one time in years. In local currency it was the equivalent of 5,000 rupees or gourd. It allowed certain people to start a business, that is those who were responsible and understood how to manage such a sum. Older people, married people, or people with children to feed were likely to carry out a business plan and pay back the loan. There really was no other way to determine a person's reliability, the poor often do not own any property other than a cooking pot and a change of clothes.

Today in the United States there is a growing class of people in need of the most basic assistance. They are raising children alone, working one or two jobs and yet still falling behind. The bills get a month and then two months behind. Corporations feed on these people like lions at a carcass. The late fees and interest payments accumulate, there are cut-off notices for essential utilities, landlords charge additional overdue payment fees. In order to reconnect the utilities higher deposits and high connection fees are charged. All of the late payment history is kept in credit reports for years to be used to judge the poor and to charge them higher interest rates. Health insurance is not provided to the poor, they must hope they qualify for substandard government health care programs if sickness arises.

The rich, riding in giant SUVs, drive past these people quickly. Tinted windows make it difficult to see those living in squalor. The rich build highways through the poor neighborhoods, this sometimes makes it necessary to pass by such scenes of hardship.

Rich people do not clearly understand the idea of community. It means more than a small donation to charity at tax time. Community means more than an hour in some house of worship each week. It is not enough to place old clothes in a box and leave it at a collection center. If poverty is going to be reversed there is a greater need to take a larger risk.

The risk may be extending a small loan to a responsible single mother. The risk may be hiring someone who does not wear new clothes. The chance may involve driving the car into the ghetto and teaching people a better way. It is a gamble more rich people must be willing to take if the entire community is to survive. If not enough rich reach down to the less fortunate the class divisions will soon shatter the peace for all. The sharp edges of a completely broken society will cut all members, rich and poor alike. This day fast approaches in America.

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