It’s just beginning to be light when I catch the bus from Sausalito into San Francisco for work and yet I always take a seat on the bay side of the bus so that I can drink in the view of the Golden Gate Bridge and of the boats on the water. There’s an unspoken rule of quiet on the bus and the silence is velvety as we ease into the city.
Walking along Sutter Street to my office I often see a woman in a wheelchair covered by a blanket, her wheelchair parked in the shelter of a shop entrance. Later one day I saw this woman greeting customers as they emerged from a convenience store and so I gave her some money and asked her about her story.
“I’m Judy. My husband and I came here from Winwood (Odessa, Texas) as we heard about a job here but it fell through and now we don’t have enough money to get back. We don’t have enough warm clothes or food and we need to save up enough to try and get back home. I’m here and my husband sleeps in another shop entrance when he can.”
Judy’s story is far from rare, as Rose Aguilar noted in an article she wrote for The Nation called ‘Old, Female and Homeless’ where an increasing number of women are sleeping rough due to the lack of jobs and access to services to support them. Aguilar writes:
”Every homeless advocate and shelter monitor I spoke with told me that the older homeless population in San Francisco is exploding. The problem is bound to get worse as the price of housing reaches new heights. San Francisco is the most expensive city in the country for renters, according to a March 2012 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Small studio apartments are going for as much as $2,000 a month, which is well beyond the reach of many people’s salary”.
And it’s not just San Francisco. The cost of living in most major metropolitan areas is on the rise, while wages are down. According to the latest numbers from Hearth, an organization working to end elder homelessness, the country had 40,750 homeless people 62 or older in 2012. As the nation’s population ages, that number is expected to more than double by 2050.’
Tavis Smiley, one of the most astute and admired talk show hosts in the United States, recently moderated a panel of opinion-makers focusing on the crippling issue of poverty in America in a four part PBS series. In introducing the series, Smiley shared the fact that last year in Washington, the top 5% made more than $500,000 while the bottom 20% made less than $9,500, constituting a 54:1 ratio. Since 1989 poverty in 49 of the 50 states has increased. Mississippi continues to rank as the worst state in the nation when it comes to poverty.
Watch ‘Vision for a New America’ panel discussion – Part 1 on PBS. See more from Tavis Smiley.
Professor Jeffrey Sachs, Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and a member of the panel convened by Smiley, pointed out that “politics has neglected the poor. The United States has by far the most poverty of any of the high-income countries, taken as a share of the population. We have the highest inequality; we have the most entrenched underclass. We have had the biggest increases of inequality by far and we’ve had the least political response of any high-income country.”
Professor Sachs went on to say, “When I come back from a trip abroad…I’m coming back to a rickety infrastructure in this country, where you look at our airports and our roads, the highways you travel. They’re 50 years old, because we’re not reinvesting in this country right now…Of course the poor are the most urgent. They’re the ones clinging, trying to hold on. We’re not taking care of that. But when we have a disaster like Hurricane Sandy that hit the whole East Coast, people have been warning for years with the rising sea levels, with the more intense storms, with the climate change, we have to get our infrastructure right. The idea, starting around 1981, was to starve the beast, so-called. Just get the size of government down. What we’re doing is incapacitating our ability to face the deep problems that we have in this country. One of them is an underclass that on its own cannot find a way out and no longer has any kind of helping hand.”
In New York, many people are still living without heat and other services as a result of Hurricane Sandy and some have even died. Those who are just “clinging, trying to hold on” have lost any hope and faith that government and society are looking out for them. The continual reference by politicians and parliamentarians to the middle class being the great force and strength of society does nothing to give hope to those who remain in deep poverty and who see a bleak future ahead.
That’s why Tavis Smiley’s call for a White House Conference on US poverty is important in terms of getting commitments and action on addressing poverty now.
Today my friend next door is having a farewell as she and her husband can’t afford to live in America anymore with a new baby. Their financial situation shows that it wouldn’t be possible for them to have quality time with their baby on their reduced income, or to afford childcare services. So they’re moving to Europe where her husband’s family will help and where they will receive health care and other forms of government support from the moment they touch down in Germany, where her husband was born. She’s deeply worried about the level of disorientation and learning a new language as well as being in a place she doesn’t consider home.
Of course women in so many countries are at the front line of dislocation, movement and migration for both economic and political reasons. Whatever issues women are facing in America are magnified and accelerated for women in many developing countries. I recently interviewed Ma Khin Mar Mar Kyi who was born in Burma and who found herself moving from country to country for years as a result of the political situation in her country. And so here is her story:
“I grew up in Rangoon where I was born into a middle class family and I lived there until I left in 1990. I was radicalized as a student when I was studying education. I supported Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and worked with the National League for Democracy. The 8 August 1988 military response to the people’s protest for democracy movement forced me to leave during the crackdown. After I was arrested, interrogated, jailed and then taken to a military camp, I realized it was no longer possible for me to stay in Burma even though I was scared and reluctant to leave alone. After a few times of being arrested and interrogated, I knew that I would be re-arrested on any pretext and so I had to leave. I just had to go.
I didn’t believe in armed struggle and yet I could understand why some people felt it was the only way. Our peaceful expressions of our wish for democracy were met with devastating and sustained acts of violence. People were frustrated and appalled by the cruelty of the military crackdown. I went to Thailand where I worked as a teacher. It led to work on a program for street children to help them to get an education. It was there that I became aware of the trafficking issue. So I started talking to girls and grass roots women’s organizations. From all that I heard, I felt it was so important to bring attention to this issue and so I created a campaign and an organization called Fight Against Trafficking and Exploitation (FATE) in 1992 to advocate for girls and young women to be protected from sex trafficking. At the time, this issue was pretty invisible and there were no laws in place to protect girls and women being trafficked. Ensuring that these laws existed, and that they were enforced, was the only way to stop this happening. Everyone seemed in a state of denial about trafficking and it was a hard and very lonely struggle.
Furthermore, I felt acutely the trauma of being a woman without a home, without money and without power. And of course I was so intimately aware of the fact that this is what the majority of women in the world experience. It was a life changing experience for me. During my childhood and my teenage years I didn’t know what struggle was about – my parents were Oxford educated and I had a comfortable childhood.
I felt torn apart seeing what was happening to these girls and not being able to help them. I was also scared that I would experience the same fate. This exposure, and the fact that many of these girls and women were sent across the border, led me to work with displaced people on the Cambodian-Thai border. I worked as a teacher trainer in these displaced persons camps. However, my strong will to work with, and for, Burmese women and their human rights led me to return to the Thai-Burma border. I later noticed near the Thai-Burma border how complicit many of the police were in trafficking. As I became better known to some of these police, I was targeted and I didn’t feel it was safe to stay where I was. I witnessed serious corruption in Thailand and the police were aware of what I’d witnessed.
I felt overwhelmed and yet I knew it was an important issue that needed to be addressed. I wanted to help girls and women being trafficked but I felt helpless and powerless. I wanted to help women establish programs designed to increase their economic security and to ensure their personal safety but I did not know how to get this support. So I decided to work and save money to set up the program. I began to working in a pre-school and, although I worked hard, I still managed to save little. I knew that if I couldn’t help myself then I couldn’t help others. I had to save myself in order to save others. So I decided to leave Thailand and apply to Australia as a political refugee in Laos.
It took two years of waiting for my visa and over that time it was becoming harder and harder to survive on the streets. The US Embassy said it would accept me but I knew it would be harder for me to secure education and social security due to the cost of education. I went to the Canadian Embassy and they gave me a ‘Letter of Protection’ that said I was under the protection of the embassy for any encounters I had with the Thai police.
By the time I received confirmation of my Australian visa after two year, I was somewhat conflicted. The realization of ‘I am going alone to a new country where I know no-one and have no idea what my future holds’ was overwhelming. The Australian Embassy was very good – they had a staff person come to the airport with me. “Please look after Mar Mar,” the embassy official said to the flight attendant because I was so emotional. She was great. I flew in to Western Australia and had to find my own accommodation that night before I reported to Centrelink the next day to receive money and support. I arrived in July, in winter, and had no warm clothes or bedding and no idea where to find them. Everything was new and hard.
I had to start my life anew. I worked hard. Slowly I began to save money and sent some back to women groups at the Thai-Burma border. I did this for five years and then I decided that if I wanted to help other women to get educated then I needed to get educated myself. At that time I didn’t even know how to use a computer but once I began to use it new worlds opened up for me. Oh it made me so happy. It was heaven! It was so liberating!
I went to study at the Australian National University in Canberra. I did a Graduate Diploma and then a Masters in Asian Studies. And I submitted a PhD in Social Anthropology while also working as an advocate to end gender based violence in Burma. I also produced a documentary film called Dreams of Dutiful Daughters, which was very well received. Then I established a street children program and support for an orphanage as well as women’s income generation groups inside Burma and on the Thai-Burma border.
My dissertation topic is ‘In pursuit of power: militarization impact on poverty, gender based violence.’ When I speak in Burma about gender based violence, people just think I mean rape. No, I mean the myriad of ways that women are violated every day – such as being sexually harassed on the buses when they go home from work or being told that they are needed in the home not at the negotiating table.
I’m now, at this point in my life, so much better equipped to help other women in Burma to secure their human rights. I’m passionate professional and activist academic. I was born in Burma and trained as a Social Anthropologist at Australian National University, one of the world’s best universities. Now I have a voice and I can realize my potential. I took my chances and now I have a chance to help others. I know that if I help them then they will help others. I know what they are experiencing; I know what it is like to be a woman in the struggle.”
I hugged Ma Mar and thank her for the truth and power of her story, and of her courage that has led her to this point in her life.
And so, here in the US, I hope that the Obama administration does take up Tavis Smiley’s call for a White House Conference on US Poverty. I hope too that women’s representation at that gathering reflects both the increasing feminization of poverty and also the fact that women know best the kind of solutions that will work for them, and that will have a flow on positive impact on their families and communities.
I say this being mindful of Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times report (Jan 27th) from the World Economic Forum at Davos where women comprised only 17% of the delegates. I hope that the commitments resulting from this conference recognize the interconnectivity between poverty in America and poverty in other countries.
The solutions agreed upon need to be inclusive rather than exclusive. If the solutions ignore the impact of dislocation, migration and movements in other parts of the world on this country then the gains will be short-lived rather than contributing to the transformation of society.
Human rights will be a powerful force for the transformation of reality when they are not simply understood as externally defined norms of behavior but are lived as the spontaneous manifestation of internalized values.
Jane Sloane - San Francisco