Thursday, December 20, 2007

'Tis the Season

I live in a city with 1.6 million people living below the poverty level (1 in 5 New Yorkers). And for what it's worth, the federal poverty rate is currently a family of 3 surviving on $16,600 a year. Can you even imagine? Over half of all babies born in NYC are born into poverty. Poverty rates soar while public assistance has plummeted. Only 44 percent of students in NYC graduate from high school in 4 years (it costs $13,755 to educate a NYC student per year). 40 percent of children in foster care end up in prison (it costs $100,000 to incarcerate a person per year per--you do the math). And as it says on NYC non profit Robin Hood's homepage, 34,000 people slept in shelters last night, nearly half of whom were children. One cannot live in NYC and not understand that the poverty is staggering.

I don't come from money. I grew up in a working class family in a proudly blue collar neighborhood. It was during the devastation years when the big factories like Bethlehem Steel closed down and threw Buffalo, NY into the brink of economic oblivion. I grew up with government cheese (those bright orange bricks were mighty tasty!) and gas lines in nearby Canada that went for miles. Like any other kid, I thought my life was perfectly normal and relatively happy. If you don't count high school. Then, as the first kid to go to college in my family, I arrived at a swank Northeast liberal arts college and gawked at the students who arrived in limos, at moms decked out in Chanel suits speaking Portugese with a Brazilian lilt. There was a lot of gawking that first month for me. Eventually I became immune to stories of fox hunting with the Rockefellers and when my mom asked me tentatively over the phone, how I felt coming from a lower class, I sincerely answered that I was proud of where I came from.

But I had advantages that many do not. I know that my family, as working class WASPs, sheltered my brown immmigrant ass from a lot of torture. As many of you know, I was adopted as a baby, so while I'm ethnically Filipino, coctail hour and -albeit government- cheese plates in my life was absolutely de rigeur. Because my own complicated identity crosses a lot of borders, I know in the marrow of my bones that if it weren't for some serious life changing luck outside of my control, my life would be very very different. My mom, my sister, and I moved into my grandparents' house when I was six. My mom chose this over public housing when her husband left her high and dry with two kids. If I did not have my grandparents, who were able to buy and pay off their house without predatory lending, if I did not have my mom who was able to get a job as a church secretary during a time of double digit unemployment with the basic but necessary skills she learned at the local high school, if I did not have the cheap local track team to keep me busy and sprinting my way through childhood, the backyard to safely play football, the after school programs at the local church, the free lunches at school, the well stocked shelves of the local library, then my life would be markedly different. And make no mistake, a working class suburb hugging North Buffalo is not the same as Brooklyn.

My grandparents passed away in 1999 and 2000, and I think of them every day. I miss them terribly during the holiday season. And it is because of them that I will never forget where I come from. There was a lot of giving thanks in my childhood, and this time of year was when you remembered others. So thank you, Nema and Grandpa, for making my life so fortunate. Hopefully somebody up there can explain the word "blog", because we were stuck on translating "answering machine" and never made it to "internet"...

That's an important word, Fortunate- Receiving good from uncertain or unexpected sources. While hard work and an honest education may be a best selling ticket to prosperity, there's a lot of division among the uncertain and unexpected sources. Non profits and charities help bridge this division. This is our city, our country, our world. And even if I have piggybankblues, I am fortunate enough to even have a piggybank. Whether it's a religious/cultural holiday, or simply the retrospection of filling up the new year's dance card, 'tis the season to remember that ten dollars a month to your favorite charity is $120 worth of annual giving. Just remember- charge it to a no-fee rewards credit card, and pay it off in full each month :)

Here are a few of my favorite charities that allow monthly giving in smaller amounts, please feel free to share your own.

Food Bank for New York City

Robin Hood

New York Asian Women's Center

Transportation Alternatives

Astraea Foundation

New York Cares- search engine to volunteer in NYC

Charity Navigator- evaluates the financial health of charities nationwide


SavingDiva said...

It's hard to imagine being in a school system that only 44% of students graduate from high school in 4 years. I grew up in a small town that was pretty poor...however, people went to high school (not that it was a world class education) and usually graduated...I would guess about 5% wouldn't's such a different world!

PiggyBankBlues said...

i know, right? i find it astonishing, simply astonishing.

the nyc public school system is the largest in the country, with 1.1 million students in over 1,400 separate schools, and 40% of students live in households where a language other than English is spoken. the Dept of Ed translates report cards in 8 languages! the sheer size of the system and diversity make it very hard to perform on an economic scale similar to other systems. or smaller economic scale, if you compare nyc to the rest of ny state or its surrounding suburbs...

Esme said...

What a lovely post! Sometimes I find that I get a little stuck in my own little problems and lose perspective.

My childhood was a mix of have and have nots. I was brought up by my aunt until I was 10. In a small town, whatever the parents sent home felt like a lot of money. So I was like a princess. Then I moved to live my parents and sister in the big city and things were quite different. My sister and I shared a small room in our 2 bedroom apartment. There were always things other kids at school had that I couldn’t. Sometimes I had to miss out on school trips because we didn’t have the money.

But I am grateful for the public programs. I was at the public library so much they offered me a part-time job as a page. I went to after school art classes and French language classes, learned skate and swim for nearly nothing. To this day my favorite kind of skating is still at an outdoor tennis court turned skating rink.

Happy Holidays :)

PiggyBankBlues said...

thanks esme :) and thank you for sharing your wonderful story, as well. it just goes to show how important both the support of one's family and the opportunities through public programs are.

and happy holidays right back atchya!