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As a culture we seek out stories that have happy endings. Stories of heroes slaying dragons or overcoming difficult circumstances. But what about the people who don’t have happy endings. Poverty is a world wide issue that many never escape. People are born poor live poor and die poor. Others fall into poverty and find themselves unable to get out. There are people who, through luck or skill, find a way to break free of poverty. These are the stories we are told. Stories of triumph and hope. It is far rarer to hear a story of those who never escape poverty. The poor remain unheard. We don’t want to hear them. No one wants to hear about people in horrible situations with little or no chance of getting out.
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As long as we are unwilling to listen to the poor an outside power is needed to speak for them. Barbara Ehrenreich became a voice for the poor with her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Ehrenreich lived for three months as a low wage worker in America to see how the poor lived. She gave a voice to the silent by becoming one of them.

Okonkwo was born to a poor father but managed, through hard work and determination, to become wealthy. As a hero who escaped poverty his story is one that gets told. Okonkwo became a power in his village, this position gave him the opportunity to speak for the poor but instead he resents the poor. Okonkwo worked his way out of poverty and has little sympathy for those who haven’t.

“‘Does the white man understand our custom about land?’ ‘How can he when he does not even speak our tongue?’” (Achebe). In Things Fall Apart, the Ibo tribe is, shall we say, “invaded” by the white (British European) man. The white man is entering with a noble goal: to bring salvation to the save peoples of the uncivilized continent of Africa, spurred on by the “White Man’s Burden.” As written by Achebe, those that don’t make an attempt to communicate with the group they are going to attempt to aid will fall will lack a vital understanding of those with which they are dealing. This is akin to the political situation in America. Lying secretly in pockets and dispersed lightly but broadly throughout the country, there are many homeless people. They have been muted. When things are done to try and help them, the ideas stem from those in an echelon at least twexternal image SBWrT.jpgo steps higher. Being so distanced from the object receiving “help,” and lacking a sense of common ground or experience or “tongue,” their efforts are but a recreation of attempts to save Africa. Though the difference is that the homeless (supposedly) need help, the concept is the same: those with too great a distance have forced their way into a place wherein they lack the proper experience to really do any kind of good and have stripped away the voices of those whom they are attempting to help.

It may be argued that these people have no voice for the reason that they wish not to express it. This may be true in a few instances. However, more often than not, this is simply not the case. According to a study published in an article on Japan Today, “About 57% of homeless people [surveyed] expressed a desire to vote in an election.” In Japan, those who lack a home also lack the ability to vote. Ergo, the voices of those that are homeless are not quashed of their own volition, but rather by those who are in power and feel no need to hear them.

This can be connected to situations in America. When was the last time you’ve ever seen someone in Congress who’s homeless? You haven’t. “Voices in America are heard through votes, not representation,” some may claim. But to that I say, “Being human, no one can perfectly represent the mentality of another. Ideas and beliefs held by an individual are unique to them, and while common elements may be found, it is not in the nature of a human being to be completely ideologically compatible.” The voices of the homeless may whisper through a vote for someone to represent them in our lawmaking process, but whispers aren’t enough to communicate an idea before a crowd. No, they need to be supplied with a microphone and speak, not whisper
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Upon looking at a homeless person on the street, we almost always are filled with some feeling of superiority. This same sentiment can be seen in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but toward a different group of people. He describes the black helmsman of his boat as: “‘...the most unstable kind of fool I had ever seen. He steered with no end of a swagger while you were by; but if he lost sight of you, he became instantly the prey of an abject funk...’” While the description and the words themselves share very little with the verbal description we may have for one who is homeless, the sensation they create and the emotion that they evoke is extremely similar. It’s a feeling of standing above the described, as if they are some lesser sort of person. Commonly is it said to someone panhandling on the street, “Get a job!” It’s said as if the person had never considered that possible recourse for lifting themself from the predicament they have found themself in.

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Our culture is beginning to listen more to the poor. Our government has tried to lessen poverty through things like minimum wage. These help but are unable to fully solve the problem. The minimum wage frequently is not enough upon which to subsist. For example, “In El Paso County, a single adult needs to earn $9.14 per hour to be able to meet his/her basic needs” (Pearce); the minimum wage in Colorado—where El Paso County is located—at the time of the publication of the study was $7.02. Raising the minimum wage would not solve the problem either. “Most research on the minimum wage finds that it reduces employment”(Mankiw). Raising minimum wage would make life easier fro those with jobs but would lessen the number of jobs available. Companies would find ways to work with less employees in order to keep costs down. Raising minimum wage would also make low income jobs more appealing raising the number of people competing for less jobs. “Studies have found that increases in the minimum wage encourage some teenagers to drop out of school earlier”(Mankiw). More effort is being made to understand and listen to the poor. The movie Precious gives an insight into the lives of welfare livers in America. This is a good start but more is still needed. The stories of people who tried and failed to break free, those who fell suddenly into poverty without the knowledge of how to cope. All of these stories exist and are waiting to be told; all they need is a voice.