“It’s very hard to relax,” says Jacquie Jordan, tension evident in her voice. The setting sun illuminates the stained glass windows of the First United Methodist Church in Schenectady; a majestic backdrop as Jordan speaks to the audience of about 150 activists, clergy, and Capital Region residents who gathered at the Truth Commission on Poverty on July 13.
“Poverty is like a monster, sucking the life out of you,” she says, tearing up. “I would love to know what it’s like not to suffer anymore. Is there any way out of this? I’d like to know what it’s like to not have to shoulder this burden.”
If the statistics are any indication, Jordan is not alone. According to Melissa Krug from the Fiscal Policy Institute, who also testified, 45 percent of residents in Schenectady County cannot afford their basic needs — 40 percent in Albany County, and 37.5 percent in Rensselaer County. They include the very poor — those below the poverty line — and those who are considered “ALICE,” or, Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed: a term for those who are above the poverty line, but do not make enough money to afford the basic standard of living in their area.
The Labor-Religion Coalition organized the Commission in order to illuminate the struggle of people living in poverty, and to give people who are affected by poverty a chance to tell their own stories to a wider audience. People affected by poverty as well as experts and direct service providers spoke to a packed audience while eleven “commissioners” — activists and stakeholders in the communities — listened and had the opportunity to ask clarifying questions. This Capital Region Commission was the second of three — the first was held in Cuba, NY, and the third will be held in Long Island in September. The findings from the Commission will be presented in Binghamton in October.
Elizabeth James, a 28-year-old mother and former Fight for 15 organizer, also testified at the Commission. “I was working until May 5th,” she told the Commission, surrounded by her small children. “I was pregnant with my daughter. I was four, five months along when the doctor put me off [work] because I was having complications. And my fiancee was having trouble finding work. I went to DSS and they told us they couldn’t help us,” she said. Social Services told James’s fiancee that as someone who was technically able to work, there was nothing they could do for him. “He finally found a job at Taco Bell,” says James, but didn’t get the requisite amount of hours to get assistance from social services — assistance James’s family needed, in order to cope with the lack of a second income. “He would have to work at Taco Bell and work at DSS and not get paid for it, in order to qualify for aid,” says James. “That’s the only way they’d help pay part of our rent, and they cut our food stamps way down.”
“Instead of being okay for the month, we’re pinching food for our kids,” said James, dabbing at her eyes. “I shouldn’t have to live this way, with me and my fiance being working parents and taking care of our kids, we shouldn’t have to worry about whether the food will make it to the end of the month, or if rent is going to be paid on time, or if [the] electric will be cut off.”
Why was it important to hold a commission with this format, rather than collecting and presenting data? After all, individual people telling their stories — that can only give anecdotal evidence about poverty, rather than truly convey the breadth of the problem.
“We don’t need to collect any more data. That exists already,” Emily McNeil, director of the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State, tells The Alt. “When you listen to people talk about their lives, it reminds us how serious the situation is and how urgent it is that we do something about it. I feel like there isn’t a sense of urgency around the levels of poverty in our state that there should be.”
There’s also a leadership development component, here. The Labor-Religion Coalition is unabashedly looking to develop leaders amongst the population that is affected by poverty. Not only is this kind of story-telling empowering for these specific individuals, it can help develop their political consciousness to hear and meet other people who are going through the same thing. “People realize that, ‘Hey, I’m not alone. Other people are facing the same challenges, and it’s not my fault,’” says McNeil.
James’ experience with the Commission and her earlier experience with the Fight for 15 campaign speak to the potential for projects like this to contribute to leadership development. “When I first started [telling my story], not going to lie, I was scared about it,” James told The Alt over the phone. “I didn’t want everyone to know about not being able to pay rent, electric, or our kids going through that. But I learned that people need to hear our stories, otherwise they won’t know what we’re living with everyday.”
It is hard to tell her story — James admits that each time she tells someone what she’s going through, she cries — but she knows that performing this emotional labor is necessary. “If it makes a change for me and my children, I don’t really have a problem with it.”
“This is our life,” she tells The Alt. “We’re fighting for our life. We’re fighting for our children’s lives.”
If we are to eradicate poverty in this state, we are going to have to listen to those who are the most affected, according to McNeil. “The people testifying are the people who know the answers to what need to change, and ultimately have the power to change it.”
Joe Paparone, an organizer with the Labor-Religion Coalition, echoed McNeil, when The Alt spoke to him last week. “We have to acknowledge that people living in poverty are the experts in poverty,” said Paparone. “Even if some folks have expertise in how these systems are supposed to work, [people living in poverty] are experts in how they actually work. They can speak to the dehumanizing nature of being subjected to these systems.”
James’ experience in dealing with a recalcitrant Social Services is certainly a case in point.