McCallum: On Becoming Visible

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(HOST) Commentator Mary McCallum didn’t need to read the government statistics on poverty in America to worry about how widespread it is.  Meeting up with the human face of it in Vermont recently, was much more powerful.

(MCCALLUM)  One freezing winter day I dashed to the supermarket to pick up a few things.  I joined the stream of cars turning into the vast parking lot, calculating how much time and money I had at my disposal.  At the center of the traffic flow, a young man dressed in heavy brown coveralls stood on a tall snowbank in a spot where drivers couldn’t miss seeing him.  It was 15 degrees and his knitted hat was pulled down low.  He held a huge brown cardboard sign with these words boldly written on it:  DESPERATE FOR CASH, WILL DO ANYTHING.

Inside the store I headed for the produce section, laden with brightly colored fresh fruits and vegetables shipped in from all over the western hemisphere.  The new normal is strawberries, yellow peppers and melons whenever we want them.  While contemplating whether or not to spring for the organic bananas I suddenly got choked up.

I turned to the woman beside me testing the avocados.  "Did you see that man out there with the sign?" I asked.

"What sign?"

"The young guy standing in the snow with a piece of cardboard that says he’s desperate for work," I said.

She hadn’t noticed him.  "At least he’s not just asking for money," she said.  "He wants to work."

I moved on, filling my basket with fruits, crackers, local cheese and a bottle of wine.   By the time I reached the checkout I was marveling at the incongruity between my needs and those of the man with the sign.

On the way out of the parking lot I stopped my car, got out and walked over to him, dodging vehicles passing in both directions with drivers anxious to complete errands.  "Hey," I called out.  He nodded and smiled.  I jumped on the snowbank with him.

We introduced ourselves. With a wide smile that radiated optimism he told me he’s 24 years old.  "I’ve been standing here all week and got three jobs snow-blowing and shoveling," he said.  "That’s $150 so far."  He mentioned a wife and two toddlers.  "I’m really blessed," he added .

His goal was to make enough money for a security deposit so they could move into an apartment.  He reassured me that more people would stop to offer work and it’s been a snowy winter, so his prospects were looking good.  He thanked me for stopping.

I’ve thought a lot about that guy on the snowbank, emblematic of the thousands of Vermonters who fall through the cracks but don’t stop trying to climb back up.  With a state poverty rate of 8.7% Vermont is luckier than most.  But many are part of the invisible poor, unseen as we drive by their homes in small towns and on back roads.  If we don’t see them we don’t have to think about them.

But in winter, one of the toughest times of the year to be poor in Vermont, that guy planted himself where everyone could see him and his struggle to make ends meet.

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