Generosity

As I stood in line at a McDonald’s on the east side of Chicago, an old man thrust two crumpled dollars into my hand. I stood confused for a moment and suddenly he disappeared into a sea of all black faces. To repay his generosity, I picked up as much trash as I could hold in one hand as I walked the block from McDonald’s.

Have you ever smelled a dead body?

I admit it, I don’t know what it’s like to live in poverty. I don’t know what it’s like to be in a situation where I have no money and no real options. But I thought I had come to understand the stress and desperation of living without. I was wrong.

Poverty also means seeing friends and family become victims of death and violence. It means drugs and addiction and despair. And it means knowing what a rotting dead body smells like.

Today as I rode the train from Washington, D.C. back to Chicago to resume my journey I sat next to a man who grew up in the projects. He described growing up in the projects of DC, and of the ever-present violence and drugs. Once, he said, he was at Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street, now a tourist destination, and though the place was packed no one was ordering food. Instead everyone was shooting heroin. And he talked about being out with friends and suddenly getting a whiff of death. “Where’s the dead body at? I know there’s a dead body,” he said.

The conversation brought me mixed emotions–disgust that someone could smell a dead body and be so nonchalant about death; sadness that someone could grow up in such an environment; and shock at having my comfy view of life shaken yet again.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper

Wal-heart

It appears Wal-Mart does have a heart, of sorts.

Today the world’s third largest corporation announced it would contribute more than $2 billion towards the fight against hunger in America.

The donation will come in the form of 1.1 billion pounds of food from Wal-Mart stores, distribution centers and Sam’s Club locations (valued at $1.75 billion), and grants totaling $250 million to support hunger relief organizations.

Considering that an estimated 49 million Americans are struggling with hunger, this is welcome news. And, despite Wal-Mart’s poor track record when it comes to paying its two million employees a livable wage, this is an opportunity to give to give some credit for doing good.

Further, it is admirable that Wal-Mart has acknowledged not only that hunger exists in this nation, but that it is widespread. According to Feeding America an estimated 1 in 6 people in our country don’t know where their next meal is going to come from on any given day.

Feeding America’s report, Hunger in America 2010, found the number of individuals who are food insecure increased 36 percent between 2007 and 2008. The organization, which has been a partner with Wal-Mart in the fight against hunger since 2005, is the nation’s leading domestic hunger-relief charity, supplying food to more than 37 million Americans each year.

“Sadly, hunger is not an abstract concept in America. The staggering reality is that 1 in 6 people in our country don’t know where their next meal is going to come from on any given day. Hunger exists in all of our communities, even if we can’t always see it. People across the nation are being forced to make tough decisions – choosing between paying for dinner for their families or paying medical bills, utilities, and even rent.” –Vicki Escarra, President & CEO, Feeding America

Though Wal-Mart is far from the only company that pays low wages, it’s massive size means increasing wages can have a significant impact with minimal impact on its bottom line.

The December 2007 study “Living Wage Policies and Wal-Mart,” conducted by the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education found that increasing wages to a minimum of $10 per hour for employees would amount to $2.38 billion a year in payroll costs, or 9.3 percent of Wal-Mart’s current hourly payroll. Though a sizable sum, it would have little impact, even if  this amount was solely passed on to consumers. The study found that, if distributed evenly among all consumers, it amounts to 36 cents per shopping trip for the average consumer.

Using Wal-Mart’s figures on U.S. sales and customers, the study found the average customer spends $40.30 per shopping trip, and makes 27 shopping trips per year, spending $1,088 annually at the store. The 36 cent increase amounts to a 0.9 percent increase in prices. For the average shopper, this would result in a price increase of $9.70 a year. Surely paying employees wages that enable them to be self-sufficient is worth $10 per customer annually.

Let us hope that this is but a first step as Wal-Mart goes beyond merely recognizing that hunger exists to tackling poverty, it’s root cause.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper

Just 35 cents

Sooner or later, most people will encounter a panhandler. It is an unjust fact of life.

Though on most days my path crosses someone or another begging for some change, typically I don’t give money to panhandlers. It is not that I don’t empathize with their suffering, or that I doubt their need, but I don’t think what little I can give them will make a difference. If I am going to donate, I want to see it going to something productive, something that will provide people with the means to rise above poverty and homelessness.

That said, whether or not one gives money to someone on the street is a personal decision–it is not for me to judge. Earlier today I found myself engaged in conversation with two men whose experiences with panhandlers typify why so many choose to walk by those with outstretched hands. One man was asked for “just 35 cents” so that the panhandler could have enough money to buy a meal at a nearby fast-food restaurant, and decided to give him a dollar. A few minutes later, when he walked by the panhandler again, he was given the same pitch for 35 cents.

“I worked for my 35 cents,” he said, expressing anger at the panhandler’s insincere request.

I pointed out that surely the man on the corner begging for change would prefer to have a job and the means to provide for himself. He grudgingly agreed.

The other man I spoke with said he didn’t see how it would be that bad to be homeless, begging for his meals. He said he’d be fine living on the street. “There?” I asked him as I pointed to sidewalk in front of us, the wind blowing furiously. Would he really want to live there on the street, regardless of whether he was warm or cold, well or ill, happy or sad? In the end he agreed that living on the street is not the way to go.

The more I talk with people about homelessness, and the circumstances that find people in such a state, the more I continue to be amazed that so many have such little understanding of poverty and homelessness in this nation.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper

In search of affordability

Sometimes it takes being smacked in the face with the cold, hard truth to realize what has been slowly happening all around you. For me, the truth about just how much affordable housing has been lost in Alexandria, Va., the place I’ve come to call home, happened today as I was walking to the Braddock Road Metro station.

I’d noticed a row of public housing on Madison Street had been fenced off. But now the houses were not just fenced off, they were being knocked down. Public notices on the buildings announced that they were being demolished as part of a project to replace 194 units of affordable housing with 245 market rate units and a pitiful 134 affordable ones.

Now this is not the first time affordable housing has been lost in the Old Town portion of Alexandria, and I’m sure it will not be the last, but I was struck with the fact that people had been living in those homes just weeks prior. And, just across the street from the units being demolished, row upon row of public housing bore similar notices. Where, I wonder, are those living in the homes that remain expected to move?

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Here goes nothing, again

This time last May I was just beginning to prepare to walk across the United States. I had no idea what I was getting into. I had never walked more than a dozen miles at a time; I had never owned a backpack or a tent; and I certainly never thought I’d become comfortable swapping stories with the complete strangers I’d meet in my travels.

A year later, and with some 900 miles on my shoes, I’d like to think I’m now a seasoned pro. And yet, as I prepare to pick up where I left off in Chicago, I have been having delusions that I will somehow be able to take more supplies with me without taking on additional weight. I’ve forgotten the physical demands on my body–the mental and emotional toll of being completely at the mercy of strangers. I’ve told myself I can quickly, and effortlessly, walk 550 miles from Chicago to St. Louis to Kansas City.

It is with mixed emotions and fears that I prepare once again for a life on the road. There is no denying the addiction and the thrill of being a wandering traveler. Nor can I describe the deep satisfaction of walking up a mountain, strolling into the local bar at the first crossroads in miles, and enjoying a beer with new friends. It revives my belief that the world is mostly a good place. At the same time, as I look ahead at the route I will travel, I understand there will be long, hard days to come. My stress fracture, though now healed, is ever on my mind. The route I will travel means I will face more than a few multi-day stretches with nothing but fields and trees–a much more challenging undertaking than what I tackled as I walked from Washington, D.C. to Chicago. And I will be walking without a financial cushion to ensure my belly is always full and my head always finds a safe place to rest.

A reasonable person would perhaps be content with reaching Chicago safe from harm. A logical person would suggest I wait until I can better prepare for the trip and ensure an adequate budget. A rooted person would point out the stories to be heard on my doorstep. A cautious person would know that in pushing ahead I face uncertain risk of life and limb.

But my journey beckons. Despite the difficulties ahead, on I must travel. So, here goes nothing, again.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper

Happy Earth Day

For the past 40 years Earth Day has been a time to think about our stewardship of the planet, and to vow to do a better job. Frankly, we are not doing such a great job–and I’m not just talking about caring for the plants and animals with whom we share the planet. On this Earth Day, I urge everyone to consider not just the green things around us, but how we care for our fellow man.

When we throw garbage on the ground in a poor neighborhood, just because so many others before us have treated it as a trash can, it not only harms the environment, but it diminishes the quality of life for the people who call the area home. When we favor cheap energy and disregard the resulting pollution to the air, water and land, we also are saying we don’t care about the health of people who must drink water contaminated with hazardous chemicals or breathe in dirty air as a result. When we buy cheap goods that will quickly be consumed and thrown away, we are saying we don’t care about neighborhoods sited next to landfills or the cheap labor used to produce such goods.

And, consider that if you do not care if other people on this planet have to drink water polluted by the byproducts of energy production, eat foods contaminated by unsanitary conditions and agricultural runoff, and breath in air dirtied by traffic congestion–surely others are treating you with the same disregard.

The earth is a closed system. How we care for the well-being of all living creatures on this earth as well as the land, sea and air impacts us all.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper

Fire on tap

It doesn’t take a genius to know that tap water is not meant to catch on fire. Yet that is exactly what has happened to perhaps hundreds of residents who live near natural gas drilling stations.

Natural gas has been billed as a “clean” and inexpensive form of energy. But, when it is extracted from the ground by the a process called fracking, it can contaminate nearby water supplies, pollute the air and cause serious negative health impacts for both the humans and animals who live nearby.

And, as many who live near fracking sites have determined, their water not only looks, smells and tastes funny, but it also can be lit on fire.

So many say they want clean energy–but what people really mean is they want clean energy as long as it doesn’t cost too much. Unfortunately, everything has a cost. The question is when you pay. Natural gas may initially appear less expensive than say wind energy. But is it still cheaper once the costs from things like the human health toll from air pollution and water contamination and the destruction of nearby watersheds and the release of mercury into the air are included?

Josh Fox’s documentary GasLand, about natural gas extraction by means of a hydraulic drilling process called “fracking,”

Congress exempted fracking fluids from the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005.

When measuring cost, we must include these external hidden fees. To neglect to do so paints an inaccurate picture of the true expense of polluting our environment, ill-paying workers and damaging human health.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper

When fire flows from the tap

March 27, 2010

It doesn’t take a genius to know that tap water is not meant to catch on fire. Yet, for some who live near natural gas drilling stations in the United States, it is very much a reality.

Natural gas has been billed as a “clean” and inexpensive form of energy. But, when it is extracted from the ground through a process called fracking, it can contaminate nearby water supplies, pollute the air and cause serious negative health impacts for both the humans and animals who live nearby.

And, as many who live near fracking sites have discovered, their water not only looks, smells and tastes funny, but it also can be lit on fire.

To extract natural gas through fracking, water and a secret cocktail of hundreds of hazardous chemicals are pumped deep into the earth. An EPA report in 2004 determined that fracking did not pose a threat to drinking water and Congress exempted fracking fluids from the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005.

Last week the EPA announced that it would revisit fracking’s health and environmental impacts, a major move forward for environmentalists. However, this week, reports have been leaked that the oil and gas industry has inserted language banning federal regulation of fracking into the climate and energy bill being negotiated by Senators Kerry, Graham and Lieberman.

Beyond the potential for contamination of water supplies, the fracking process itself uses millions of gallons of water. No problem you say, the planet is some 70 percent water. Unfortunately only 3 percent of the world’s water is freshwater and half of that is locked in the polar ice caps and glaciers. The world’s supply of freshwater is dwindling, a situation all too familiar in the West.

Further, according to a new report by the United Nations called Sick Water, it has been found that 3.7 percent of all deaths in the world are caused by water-related illnesses. Considering that while cheap energy is nice, we all need water to live, we must ask ourselves, why we do not step forward and demand action.

We can no longer afford to recklessly waste our water and pollute our air in the name of cheap energy. So many say they want clean energy–but what people really mean is they want clean energy as long as it doesn’t cost too much. Unfortunately, everything has a cost. The question is when you pay. Natural gas may initially appear less expensive than say wind energy. But is it still cheaper once the costs from things like the human health toll, air pollution and the destruction of nearby watersheds are included?

So, we must ask ourselves: do we want cheap energy at the expense of clean water?

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Hidden costs

Today, as I watched a screening of Josh Fox’s documentary GasLand, about natural gas extraction by means of a hydraulic drilling process called “fracking,” it struck me just how often we allow short-term greed to stand in the way of what is best for everyone over the long term.

Natural gas has been billed as a “clean” and inexpensive form of energy. But, when it is extracted from the ground through fracking, it can contaminate nearby water supplies, pollute the air and cause serious negative health impacts for both the humans and animals who live nearby.

So many say they want clean energy–but what people really mean is they want clean energy as long as it doesn’t cost too much. Unfortunately, everything has a cost. The question is when you pay. Coal may initially see less expensive than say wind energy. But is it still cheaper once the human health toll from mining, the destruction of nearby watersheds and the release of mercury into the air are included?

The same can be said for ensuring everyone has a job that pays a livable wage. Business owners may argue that they cannot afford to pay employees higher wages. But can we afford to subsidize the housing, food and health care of those who are not paid a livable wage?

When we buy a $19 pair of jeans or a $10 pair of shoes we neglect the cost on the developing nations. Third World workers bear the real costs in lower wages as do struggling domestic businesses who lose out to cheap imports. Further, a recent study by the scientists at the Carnegie Institution for Science found that more than a third of carbon dioxide emissions associated with the consumption of goods and services in many developed nations are emitted outside their borders.

Roughly 2.5 tons of carbon dioxide per person are consumed in the U.S. but produced somewhere else. In Europe the figure can exceed four tons per person. Suddenly the $10 pair of shoes is not so cheap.

When measuring cost, we must include these external hidden fees. To neglect to do so paints an inaccurate picture of the true expense of polluting our environment, ill-paying workers and damaging human health.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper