Let me begin by sharing with you the story of an inner-city Cleveland family of seven, two adults and five children all under the age of 11.
The family did not own a home. They were renters. As the family grew, it became ever more difficult to find rent. At one point the old car in which they roamed the city in search of rent became their living quarters. Evenings, the father and mother and a newborn slept in the car’s front seat, and the four other children, in the back.
They found rent by understating the number of children, which, when discovered, led to eviction and the same cycle of wandering as urban nomads. The father, a truck driver, had a war-related injury that occasionally required medical treatment, taking him out of work. Bills piled up, which led to garnishments. The mother suffered from post-partum depression, compounded by noisy, rambunctious children.
The children were sometimes out of school, as the family did not know where its next shelter or its next meal would come from.
This inner-city family lived in 21 different places in 17 years, including a couple of cars.
When we gather today to speak of poverty and inequality, I understand, because I was the oldest child in that inner-city family, which grew to nine persons, a family that was riveted to a day-to-day struggle to survive.
Ours was an intense experience of poverty and inequality that led to social disorganization, chronic instability that made daunting every encounter with every institution in a society, instability that created severe emotional difficulties in four of the seven children. Poverty and its partner chaos can play on people’s minds.
One of my most powerful memories was of listening to the sound of my parents’ counting pennies to pay utility bills. “Click, click, click,” I could hear the pennies drop, one by one, as they hit the metal top table.
Today I can hear those pennies dropping all over America for families not able to scrape together the cash to pay their bills, families who lack adequate housing, families who do not have adequate health care, families trying to raise children in a chaotic urban environment, families who truly do not know where their next meal will come.
In America today there are tens of millions of people with a hard-luck story. Tens of millions out of work, in ill health, in search of affordable rent, having neither a place nor a home to call their own; millions of people for whom, as Langston Hughes put it, life “ain’t been no crystal stair.”
No one who escapes such an environment physically or economically does it alone. There are teachers, coaches, doctors, lawyers, aunts, uncles, neighbors who appear as angels in our lives, who catch us when we are about to fall, who lift us up at the right moment, who show us a different path, who guide us in a new direction, who transport us to new possibilities, new futures.