The Line

What does it mean to be “poor?” The US Census Bureau has a formula, developed in the 1960s. The Department of Health and Human Services has another formula. Other agencies of federal and state governments use different measures. The measures of poverty used by the government are flawed and make understanding what it means to be poor in this country difficult and confusing.

What is not confusing is that there are many people, a majority of them children, women and old people, who do not have the financial resources to live without help. The bounty of the richest country on the earth does not benefit all citizens.

Recently a group of local citizens participated in watching a new movie produced by Sojourners, Bread for the World, World Vision, Oxfam America, the Christian Community Development Association with funding by the MacArthur and Annie E. Casey foundations. The movie, “The Line,” tells the stories of people across the country who live at or below the poverty line. The stories told are not about “others” who are lazy, uneducated, leeches on society. The people whose stories are told are not so different from the people who sat in the local theater watching. They love their children. They work hard. They want a decent place to live. They want to give their kids more opportunities than they have had. They want respect and kindness. Some had lost their jobs, another suffered a debilitating injury and could not work, another was homeless, another suffered the loss of business due to natural and man made disasters. None of them simply thought they were “entitled” to a handout.

The idea that the poor simply make bad decisions and don’t take responsibility for their own lives doesn’t fit with the stories told in “The Line.” Certainly there are people who make choices which push them under the line.  The rich have much more leeway when it comes to making bad decisions. The same foolish choices, if you have enough resources, don’t send you to live in a homeless shelter or require you to swallow all your pride and stand in line at a food pantry for your next meal.

The thing that really hit me in “The Line” was the statement by Sheila who grew up in an inner city slum. She made the point that many of the young people who live where she grew up live with a sense of hopelessness. They do not see the future being any different from the way they live now. The violence, the endless poverty, the lack of a future sucks life from many of them. They have friends die in drive-by shootings and in gang violence. Many do not expect to live to adulthood. What’s the point of going to school and trying?

I have a young friend who has taught in an inner city public school. Many times she has driven home in tears because she sees no hope for a better life for her students whom she cares so much for. She knows that movies of a teacher who changes everything is a fantasy. She cannot change the fact that her kids sometimes don’t have enough to eat. They listen to gunshots in the street. They live in dysfunctional communities and have no hope.

One of the movie viewers at our local showing of “The Line” very accurately pointed out that even the poor in this country lived better than most of the rest of the world. It is hard to compare the poverty of driving your mini-van to the local food pantry and wondering if your electricity will be shut off to living in Africa on two dollars a day.

Comparing poverty in the United States to extreme poverty in other parts of the world doesn’t change the problem in either place. The real tragedy of poverty is the loss of hope.

The problem of poverty goes beyond the difficulty of defining what it is. The bigger problem is what we do about it.

Is feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting the sick and imprisoned an individual responsibility? Is it the responsibility of charities and religious organizations? Is it our responsibility as a society and best solved by our combined efforts through our government? Is it everyone’s responsibility to take care of one’s self? Do the poor (and the rich) deserve the life they live? How does the way we live keep others here and in other places in the world from having enough? How do we change the numbers of Americans living at or below “The Line?” How do we change the number of people who live on less than two dollars a day?

Thanks to United Lutheran’s Esther Circle for sponsoring “The Line.” Thanks to Steve and The Roxy Theater for screening it, and thanks to the generous members of our community who took time to watch the movie, who participated in the discussion, and who helped by filling our basket with change for the local food pantry.

“The Line” is available for viewing online at

Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains