Backpacking forward

On Thursday morning, I went to the HCC Cosmetology building for the annual First Call for Help back pack give away.

This happens every year for as long as I can remember. When I was at The News, we’d write about it beforehand, to help drum up donations, and the day of the event. This was the first time I had experienced the event in a capacity other than a journalist.

When I got there, I asked Dr. Graham if there was anything I could do to help out. She handed me some slips of paper and a pen – and said I could ask people in line how many backpacks they needed, and if they wanted haircuts for their children, how many. This, I believe, speeded up the flow when people made it to the check in table. It might have been just to keep me out of her hair and out of the way.

First Call expected about 1,100-1,200 kids to take home backpacks for school. Based on latest census numbers, that’s about 8 percent of the children in Reno County under the age of 18 whose families so couldn’t afford school supplies that they had to stand in line to get them for free. But, it’s likely most of those kids were from Hutch, which would boost the percentage.

I spent a good deal of time talking to people while they stood in line, and a couple of things stood out to me.

First, if you’re poor, you spend an inordinate amount of time in line. The programs we have in place for people to offer help are good. And executing it in an orderly fashion – which often requires queuing up – is one way to ensure things run smoothly. But on the whole, if you have so little money that you require public assistance or help from the community, you’re going to spend a lot of time in lines.

And that, while perhaps necessary, doesn’t lend itself to spending that time in other, more productive ways. I’ve heard enough stories, and seen them. If you happen to get crosswise with the legal system, you’ll spend time waiting in line for your court hearing. If you need help from Department of Children and Family Services, you’re going to wait for that. If you need medical care, but don’t have insurance, you’re probably going to spend time waiting in the emergency room.

I’m not sure there’s a good answer to solving that, but the more time someone has to spend standing in line, the less time they have for other things, like developing skills, reading, learning things, working or looking for work, or otherwise improving their lives. I imagine there’s a sort of survival mentality that exists – where standing in line to procure the things you or your family needs becomes its own form of work.

The second thing that stood out was all the kids.

It seems during the past several years there’s been this attitude that poor people are poor because they’ve not tried hard enough to not be poor. And in very small percentage of the whole, I’ll grant that. There are people who don’t, or won’t, try. There are people from all walks of life who simply chose to not participate by the majority’s rules. Fair enough. But I don’t believe that’s the case for most people. Most people want to succeed and to live richer, more fulfilling lives. They either don’t know how, or don’t see how that’s possible for them. Sometimes, they try like hell, but keep getting knocked down by unforeseen circumstances.  Yet it feels like we’ve even applied this ideology to children, who inarguably haven’t made any decisions about how to live their lives. These kids standing in line alongside their parents on Thursday were guilty only of having been born to people who didn’t have enough money.

I never have bought into this notion that there’s an entire group of people who simply want to live a life of poverty, who simply enjoy the lifestyle that comes with never having enough. The belief that many people want that for themselves and their families is not supported by evidence. I suspect what happens is that people learn how to survive with what is available around them. Thriving, in that environment, is not even a distant consideration. As you have less and less, you expect less and less. Eventually, you accept the idea that there’s really nothing out there for you to aspire toward, and you simply learn to take what you can get to make it, and enjoy the few brief moments of indulgence that come your way.

And these kids, all happy and smiling with their paths not yet set, were learning something that day, too. They learned that if they don’t have money for school supplies, the way you get them is to stand in line. This is now imprinted on them. Their parents are doing it out of necessity, but the kids will likely one day do it, too, because it is how they were shown to survive this world. Changing that is part of what the Circles of Hope program is attempting to do.

At some point, I’d hope we start looking at people as investments to be made instead of costs to be managed. And the truth as I see it is that as we’ve reduced our investment in people, we’ve seen diminished returns. As we’ve failed to think longer term, to view these issues through the lens of a generation or two out, we’ve struggled to understand why more people need more help and seem to lack the capacity to move out of poverty. But it doesn’t really seem like it should be all that hard to understand. If we don’t invest in people, we’ll get what we pay for later on.


Cross posted from

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