By Jason Coker
COVID-19 has dramatically impacted our lives as human beings on planet Earth. Even the United States economy has been brought to its knees—arguably the most powerful entity in the world. The chaos of this moment begs a deeply human question: Who are we? And maybe as important: What really matters?
Our most basic human needs are air, water, food and shelter. With these four things, we can survive for a very long time as a species. Remarkably enough, these essentials for human survival are exactly the kind of issues I deal with in poverty work.
People living in poverty in America struggle with getting clean water (many poverty-stricken towns across the country have failed infrastructure that does not provide a reliably clean water source). Food is always a primary issue in places of poverty. From grocery stores that closed years ago to even having money to purchase food—whether it’s healthy food or not. Most kids in these areas find their only hot reliable meal at school. And then you add shelter or housing. Housing is too expensive and affordable options tend to be dilapidated to the point of having moldy and leaking places to call home. There’s just not enough space to talk about air or air quality.
As COVID-19 has shown, everybody has to have water, food and shelter. Look at the grocery stores right now. Food doesn’t stay on the shelves long enough for everyone to get what they are looking for. Forget about the bottled water aisles—they are empty. And shelter? With so many businesses requiring their employees to work from home and schools being closed, home looks a lot different these days.
The virus doesn’t just threaten our health. The residual effects of COVID-19 have shown us what kind of society we are—all over the world. It has laid bare how we treat our society’s most vulnerable—always children and senior adults.
The systems and policies that we have in place have created a high poverty rate, and we continue to understand poverty in terms of “deserving poor” and “undeserving poor.” In other words, some people in poverty deserve help while others do not. Truth be told, the U.S. often treats all people who experience poverty the same: undeserving poor. The idea is that if you live in a country as great as America, you should be able to thrive. Those who don’t thrive don’t deserve help because anyone who wants to thrive can in America. That is clearly not true and it’s getting more so every day. COVID-19 has made us acutely aware of this inept ideology.
This traditional ideology about poverty is as foolish as saying, “If you really wanted toilet paper, you can just go get it.” THERE IS NO TOILET PAPER. There may be some out there, but only certain people have it, and they have hoarded it all for themselves. Even worse, some of those who have hoarded it think they deserve it more than others simply because they have it. And now, they will sell it to everyone else, but at a much higher price. This toilet paper story might as well be the story of how people who experience poverty have always lived in America.
Now, to be clear, my job is to fight rural poverty. That’s what I’ve done every day for the past four-plus years. Before that, I was a pastor. COVID-19 has placed the burden of existential anxiety evenly across our world—an anxiety people who experience poverty have known their entire lives.
How will everyone be fed? What are we going to drink (because the water is bad)? Where are we going to sleep (because we can’t afford a place to stay anymore)? We are all beginning to ask these questions due to a virus. I am not downplaying the powerful anxiety that we are all feeling. I want us to all come to grips, however, with the fact millions of Americans (mostly children and senior citizens) live with these anxieties every day with or without COVID-19. And now we have the added dilemma of trying to end poverty while sitting at home (or working from home).
We will make it through COVID-19. I think our whole country and world will look differently on the other side of this. I hope we can use our experience of making it through this to be more compassionate and more human. When we can touch each other again, I hope that touch feels like the hand of Christ healing our deep wounds.
Dr. Jason Coker serves as field coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Mississippi and as national director of Together for Hope, the rural development coalition of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Learn more about Together for Hope at www.cbf.net/tfh.