Recently a friend of mine was asked by a maximum security prison if she would help them start an organic farm that would be located within the walls of the prison. The inmates would grow and eat their own food and give the left over food away. As part of this project she wanted the prison to buy industrial strength juicers so that the inmates could use the fruit and vegetables they have grown to detox; ridding their bodies of the many toxins they have been exposed to throughout their life as a result of growing up in poverty.
Grist Magazine (an environmental magazine based out of Seattle) began a seven week series, in February, on Poverty and the Environment. Weeks One and Two they discuss the environment in terms of the space in which people live, more specifically, looking at the environment in which the poorest among us live.
This is a land where people live near the freeway or next to a power station or miles from public transit; a land where the neighbors include landfills, oil refineries, nuclear-waste repositories, factory farms. This is a whole different kind of environment — but one that is no less American, and no less deserving of a movement to protect and transform it.
This is a reality most of us recognize in the developing world, and it’s true that the confluence of economic and environmental injustice can be particularly extensive and devastating in poor nations. But it is also true — and far less remarked-upon — that poverty and environmental degradation go hand and hand in the United States as well. The lower your income in this country, the higher the likelihood that you will be exposed to toxics at home and on the job. The greater the risk that you will suffer from diseases — ranging from asthma to cancer — caused or exacerbated by environmental factors. The harder it will be for you to find and afford healthy food to put on your table. The less likely you are to live in a community that provides safe outdoor spaces for you and your family to enjoy. And, as recent history tragically exposed, the more vulnerable you are to environmental catastrophes, whether they are natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina or human-made tragedies like the Exxon Valdez.
The definition of poverty in the U.S. given by the U.S. Census Bureau for 2004 was a family of four living on $19,157 or less a year. However, An Atlas of Poverty in America, says that $35,000 is needed to cover the basic needs for a family of four living in the U.S. The number of Americans living in poverty increased by 1.1 million in 2004 alone, meaning that now there are 37 million people living at or below the poverty threshold. One-third of those who have been classified as poor are children. Because those in poverty live on such an extremely limited income, they don’t get to choose the home that will be best for their family. Instead, they choose the home that they can afford and most times this means living in bad neighborhoods where their family is left exposed to dangers of many forms. They live in the areas that no one else wants to live because it is better than living on the street. They eat the food that they can afford because it is better than not eating. They work as many jobs as they need to, whatever the job may be. They do their best to survive.
Is it possible, that the inmates I mentioned earlier, many of whom are serving life sentences without parole, are going to have their basic human rights met more than poor who are free?
I realize that we live in a very complex world and that poverty is a very complex problem with no easy or full proof solutions. There are many reasons why people are living in poverty and within those groups of reasons every person’s story and situation is unique. However, this does not give us an excuse to ignore this major problem that is in desperate need of a solution.