Hunger is…

This week I’m giving over my blog to some talented writers.

The students at McDonald Elementary School in Seattle has been studying hunger. Here are similes and metaphors from Ms. Roughton’s 3rd graders.

“Hunger is like walking through a desert with no end.” – S.

“Hunger is like a river with no water.” – anonymous

“Hunger is like a stray cat sitting on the streets having no food to eat except litter.” – M.

“Hunger is like when you take off on a plane when you are sick.” – W.

“Hunger is like the rain falling down on a fire.” – W.

“Hunger is like an empty table at dinnertime.” – S.

“Hunger is like a sickness with no end and no medicine.” – G.

“Hunger is like a dinosaur roaring in your stomach.” – O.

“Hunger is like a fruit tree you can’t climb.” – J.

“Hunger is like a fire without a flame.” – E.

“Hunger is an apple out of reach.” – E.

“Hunger is like a hamster that has no home in winter.” – S.

“Hunger is like a hiding place that does not hide you.” – L.

“Hunger is like a school without a cafeteria.” – B.

“Hunger is like a puppy at a puppy mill.” – G.

“Hunger is fear following you around.” — M.

“Hunger is your empty plate you have every day.” – M.

Does Having a Bigger House Make You a Better Person?

I have in the past blogged about our attitude towards the poor. This post is about our attitude towards the rich.

Several months ago I met a couple for the first time. Their son had asked my daughter to the prom and I immediately checked out their family through mutual friends. The entire family got rave reviews. When I met the parents I was not disappointed. This was a funny, educated, and socially active couple who volunteered extensively in the community. Exactly the type whose son you might reluctantly agree wouldn’t necessary be a bad person for your daughter to know (still getting used to the whole dating thing here).

The couple asked us over to their house to see the prom “afterparty” setup. At a joint driveway I was confused as to which house had which number. To the right was a small log cabin, in front of me was what we call in our area a “McMansion.” I began walking toward the McMansion when the couple called to me from the back door of the log cabin.

It was about twenty minutes later, as we were in the house talking, that I realized I was disappointed with their house. As soon as I was aware of this feeling I was mortified by my unreasonable reaction. These were two people who had given more back to the community than my husband or I could ever hope to. I won’t even get into the list of their son’s accomplishments. Yet somewhere in the back of my head parasitical thoughts were judging this excellent family based on the size of their home.

Meeting this family made me face my unhealthy attitude towards the rich. Somewhere along the line I have begun to equate wealth with accomplishment and character.

A certain narrow type of accomplishment does create wealth. Most great accomplishments have nothing to do with money. I’m thinking of pastors and teachers here, and also volunteer coaches and food bank workers.

What’s more, character and wealth have no direct causal relationship. There is plenty of historical proof and religious cautions that the opposite may be true.

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I was shocked that I had to remind myself of this basic fact of life: your value as a person is determined by how many people you help and influence in a positive way. Period.

Where was I getting this insane idea that I could equate someone’s character to the size of their house?

Societies, just like books, have themes. If you look at almost any TV show or listen to the radio you see an orchestrated worship of wealth and the rich in this country. I thought I had avoided it, but we humans are pack animals. We pay attention to the attitudes and actions of others and then, even subconsciously, try to fit in.

I am very nervous about discussing this ugly pro-wealth bias that has nested in my head. It is embarrassing and reveals a shallowness that I’d rather not publically disclose.

But I have to discuss this because, unfortunately, I’m not alone.

Our failure to feed children in this country is intrinsically linked to our acceptance of the growing gap between rich and poor.

We are confusing what really matters — character and accomplishment — with wealth. This has allowed unscrupulous individuals to hijack our country. They siphon money from schools, eliminate living-wage jobs, and bankrupt social programs, all to feed the insatiable appetite of the rich.

Twice in the past two years we have cut food stamps, a lifeline not only for children but also for the elderly.

How could we be so stupid?

I can only hope that my daughter’s prom date and his family don’t think less of my daughter because her mother is a ditz.

What if the Poor Aren’t Stupid?

Every once and a while a nice person will come up to me and tell me about the time they volunteered with or helped the poor. Then they will lean towards me and explain why 40% of the kids in Washington State are on full or partial lunch subsidies and why 50% of the kids in the United States are being raised in poverty. “It’s the parents. If only the parents would:

Get a job.
Work harder.
____________ (Put your answer here.)”

The inference is that the poor must be stupid because there are so many ways to not be poor.

My father’s generation had a totally different take on poverty. “There but for the grace of God go I.” I heard my father say these words when he gave to charity. He said them when he talked about someone in our small town who was having a particularly rough year. He even said these words when he gave a job to a convicted murderer who had served his time. Both of my parents made a point of showing me that those I saw struggling were not that different from myself.

Somehow, over the years since I was a child, Americans as a community have lost the ability to see ourselves in the most unfortunate amongst us.

Here’s what I know about being poor.

Poverty is sometimes temporary. A setback in a job, the expense of caring for young children, a divorce, or a sick relative can all set a family back. How many people have you met who’ve lost their house because of medical bills? I’ve met several.

Poverty is also sometimes a way of life, even for those who work 40, 50, or 60 hours a week. Wages are so low in some places, and costs so high, that it impossible to survive without help. Those I know who are struggling to provide for their children work longer hours than I do for less pay.

But here’s the kicker: The poor give a larger percentage of their income to charity than the rich.*

The poor know what it feels like to live on the edge of the abyss. A mother who has struggled in the past to feed her children will pick up an extra can while while shopping to drop off at the food bank. She knows that poverty and hardship can suddenly hit smart hard-working men and women. She knows in her heart that “there but for the grace of God go I.”

The well-off in this country no longer see themselves as being like everyone else. They are convinced that if you are poor you have some fatal flaw.

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So where does this condemnation of the poor come from? My belief is that it comes from fear. It is so much easier to believe that the poor are stupid than that the poor are just like like you and me. If the poor are just like you and me, then we could end up one day not being able to feed our children. There but for the grace of God we would be.

Previous generations of Americans looked poverty straight in the face, recognized it as a problem that we all shared. Medicare, Social Security, Head Start and other social programs were put into place to try to lift up everyone. If you did stumble, if disaster struck, you didn’t have far to fall.

This philosophy helped us become one of the most prosperous countries in the world.

Our generation? We turn our heads away, thinking if we don’t acknowledge the problem it will never affect us. Year by year, the prospects for our children grow dimmer and more and more hungry children show up in our schools.

We can turn this around. Next time you see someone by the side of the road with a sign up, try it. Say to yourself: “There but for the grace of God go I.”

*In 2011, the wealthiest Americans—those with earnings in the top 20 percent—contributed on average 1.3 percent of their income to charity. By comparison, Americans at the base of the income pyramid—those in the bottom 20 percent—donated 3.2 percent of their income. — The Atlantic Monthly

The Dancing Girl and Life’s Lottery

I was very frustrated with my cat, Simba, this morning. Despite a shut door, a squirt bottle, and a German Shepherd for a guard, Simba snuck into my office and attacked a copy of Maddi’s Fridge.

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That is his third copy this week. I now have a three picture books that I can’t sell or give away because of teeth and claw punctures in Vin Vogel’s beautifully illustrated dust jacket.

I was feeling pretty sorry for myself, then I drove past the Issaquah Food Bank. A three-year-old girl was dancing in the line forming outside. She doesn’t comprehend the hardship her family is going through to get to this point. She is happy to be with her mother, to be in a line, and to be going in with a bag to get food.

Despite living with a neurotic cat, I have won life’s jackpot. I was born into a large, boisterous, book loving, church going, and socially involved family. We never had a surplus of money, but we never lacked for food either. And even though we have different football teams (they are 49’ers fans) and political opinions, I love them all.

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Others, as we know, don’t win the lottery. They are born into poverty or tough family situations. I have never been able to explain or understand these great inequalities. Yes, personal decisions do make a huge difference, but we also play the hand we are dealt.

My dad had a phrase to sum things up, “There but for the grace of God go I.” He said it when volunteering with prisoners at San Quentin, he said it as he gave his tithe to the church, and he said it while helping those who stopped by his business.

Some of where we land in life is beyond our control.

So today I’m taking a break from work to remind myself how very fortunate I am. I have a great family, a supportive writing community, and am not worried about food for myself or my children.

And I am being led to this thankfulness by a three-year-old girl dancing outside of a food bank.

What are her prospects? Some families dip into poverty. Some face disaster after disaster and can’t climb their way out.

When she starts school will she arrive with a full belly, ready to learn?

Will her parents have read to her?

Are there books in her house?

When she begins to realize how little her family has, will she give up or will she study harder?

Will she still be dancing?

That, in part, will depend on those of us who won the lottery.

Issaquah Food Bank

Feeding America