I just got back from spending six rain-soaked days in Appalachia and the Arkansas Delta, viewing some of Heifer’s newest projects to reduce hunger and poverty here in America.It was a damp and eye-opening trip in which I got to meet some remarkable people, experience despair at the entrenched poverty I saw, and feel beams of hope in the creativity and passion of farmers, cheese-makers, biker pastors, entrepreneurs and dreamers in both regions.
American poverty is the great silent shame of our time. At $15 trillion dollars a year, the American economy is the largest in the world, producing ¼ of the planet’s entire gross domestic product. Yet one in seven people in America live below the poverty line of $22, 113 for a family of four. A person working full-time at the minimum wage earns about $14,500 a year – and 80% of single mothers heading a household work at least one job and still can’t provide the basic necessities for their children.
The largest demographic of poor people are children – with 44% of American children living in low-income working families. About half of all American children will receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (food stamps) before the age of 20; for African-American children, that number is 90%. And the majority of all Americans will live in poverty at some point before reaching the age of 65.
I spent my first four days in Boone, North Carolina and the surrounding towns in far western North Carolina. Even in the relentless rain, the green of the fields and mountains, the tidy gardens of the small households, and the sweeping vistas you knew were huddled behind the dark clouds were glorious. But you can’t eat beauty. In Appalachia, the problem is not a lack of land but the lack of production of local food, organic produce, and provisions that are sought after and becoming ever more valuable in these tourist-driven communities. In the Delta, amidst huge agribusiness farms on endless swaths of land, the people have no acres to call their own, their local economy has dried up like the drought-stricken earth, and they are literally stranded in towns buffeted by crop dusters and blown past by anyone with wheels.
Somehow the land’s beauty in both places makes the hardscrabble lives of so many residents even harder to accept– along with the mining and manufacturing jobs that won’t be coming back, and the traditional ways of life evaporating like fog on the mountain. But Heifer and a bunch of other folks in these mountain and Delta communities are determined to draw a line in the sand and simply not allow that to happen.
I’ll be telling you their stories over the next two weeks. In the meantime, here’s Bob Dylan to take you back to those days when we swore we’d never let something like this happen here.