Hiram, OH – Aurora, OH, 11.1 miles

Poverty. It’s a word no one likes to hear; nor is it something we want to acknowledge exists in a country as wealthy as the United States. But far too many times when I tell people I’m walking for poverty and homelessness I’m told I need to look no further. “Poverty is right here,” they say.

Others hear only the word homeless. It is easier to digest than poverty. Homeless people are those mentally ill drug addicts loafing on the streets who prefer to live that way. And there are shelters to take care of the problem. If someone doesn’t want to go to a shelter it’s their own fault. A tidy little package for us to feel sympathy, give a few dollars around the holidays, and hide from the fact that the vast majority of people who are homeless found themselves there because they are poor.

No one wants to think that the great pair of shoes or flat screen TV they just bought for a bargain means someone will be paid wages too low to afford a place to live. We do not want to accept that everyone plays a role in poverty. Now I am not suggesting that we forgo having nice things. Many people work hard and deserve to enjoy the fruits of their labor. But many, many other people work hard and have nothing to show for it. Even worse, each day they fall deeper into poverty.

The numbers are staggering. In 2008, 39.8 million people were in poverty, roughly 13 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. To be classified as living in poverty in 2008 an individual had to earn $10,991 or less, $21,834 for a family of four.

Some of the poverty in the United States is related to the current economic decline–unemployment hovers just below 10 percent. But most poverty has existed for decades. It has been passed down for generations. Just as wealth gives each future generation a leg up, poverty pushes each generation down. When I was growing up I can remember my parents teaching me how to balance a checkbook, apply for a my first job, get a driver’s license and, most importantly, how to stand on my own two feet. Those trapped in generational poverty do not have these skills. They were not taught by their parents or at school how to thrive as an adult, nor given any opportunities. Nor were their parents taught these skills so that the knowledge could be passed down. They were not taught how to be self-sufficient, nor did anyone encourage them to dream big or to expect a better future.

Of course it need not be this way. There is no reason for large segments of those living in this country to be destitute. All it takes is a few people dedicated to making things better. In every community where there are houses falling down, or businesses boarded up there are also those who plant flower gardens and take pride in their homes and businesses and encourage their children to excel. Being poor is no excuse for letting things fall apart around you or license to give up hope. Pulling out of poverty is going to take more than a few flower gardens, and dedicated parents but it is a start. And it is a sign that just as things can fall apart, they can be rebuilt.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper