Poverty is spreading in America like an invasive weed whose roots seem impossible to destroy. The gap between the rich and the poor has never been greater. So far, we haven’t come up with any way to shorten that gap by extending the prosperity of a strong middle class to be within the reach of anyone who leads a working life. The working poor is an oxymoron that should be eliminated from our lexicon.
For centuries, people have wrestled with the disparities between the rich and the poor. In fact, we’ve been told that that is just the way it has to be. Even Jesus Christ said, “The poor will always be with you.” So we’re off the hook, right?
A few years ago I read a book, “The Soul of Money,” by Lynne Twist. Ms. Twist has spent most of her life working to eradicate hunger. She is a global activist who has raised more than $150M for humanitarian causes. Much of her book has stayed with me, but the experience she related of her visit to Bangladesh will remain foremost in my memory.
For decades, Bangladesh has been a nation buried in poverty as a result of regional wars, foreign powers stripping the land of its abundance of resources, and more than their share of natural disasters.
Working with the Hunger Project when they were beginning to expand their mission to Bangladesh, Ms. Twist volunteered to help facilitate a program designed for Bangladeshis to help them reconnect with their cultural identity, build awareness of their intrinsic assets, and create ways to translate their skills into useful and sustainable occupations. The program, “Vision, Commitment and Action Workshop,” uncovered native capabilities among the people that had long been in dormancy.
In these workshops, villagers were asked how they felt about being one of the poorest countries in the world. The answer was the same everywhere they went: “We don’t like having to accept charity. We don’t want handouts. We want to support ourselves.”
Next, the participants were asked to close their eyes and envision what self-sufficiency would look like. Tears streamed down many faces as feelings of dignity and self-respect swelled. Then with eyes opened, they spoke of their thoughts. Noticeably, each one sat up straighter and heads raised as they talked of the beautiful textiles that Bangladesh had produced for centuries. When they mentioned the great poets that their culture had shared with the world, pride strengthened their posture all the more.
After these initial workshops, seminars were developed to train these villagers in business techniques. Around the same time, the Nobel Prize winner, Muhammed Yunus, was establishing micro-credit programs through the Grameen Bank (Village Bank) for small business ventures in Bangladesh. The Hunger Project’s workshop participants were able to obtain small loans.
Today, the despair of hopeless poverty is leaving Bangladesh. Small businesses are flourishing. In 2009, the national economy enjoyed a 5.7% growth rate.
Poverty thrives when the human spirit suffers neglect. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say something that isn’t said often enough: poverty is a mental health issue – one that is stigmatized by a significant level of social ignorance.
If you would like to help raise awareness on issues of mental health, here are my two favorite mental health organizations in the U.S., both of whom are working hard to elevate the human spirit and both are rated highly on Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator.org). If you are so inclined, your charitable dollars will be well spent. Below is what is written about each one on Charity Navigator:
NARSAD, formerly known as the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, is the largest donor-supported philanthropy for psychiatric research in the world. NARSAD strives to reduce the pain and debilitation of mental illness through its leadership in funding scientific research on the causes, treatments and prevention of serious psychiatric disorders. Since 1987, NARSAD has awarded over $233 million in research grants to scientists in the U.S. and 27 other countries for the study of depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, childhood disorders and numerous other psychiatric conditions.
NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) is the nation’s largest grassroots organization for people with mental illness and their families. Founded in 1979, NAMI has affiliates in every state and in more than 1,100 local communities across the country. NAMI recognizes that the key concepts of recovery, resiliency and support are essential to improving the wellness and quality of life of all persons affected by mental illness. NAMI members and friends work to fulfill our mission by providing support, education, and advocacy. Our many activities include: public education and information activities, peer education and support, raising awareness and fighting stigma, and state and federal advocacy.
America is struggling to find ways to address our general healthcare issues. I think if we put a priority on our mental health, it might be easier to solve our national healthcare crisis.