Editor’s note: This commentary is by Bill Schubart, a regular commentator for Vermont Public Radio and a former board member of the Vermont Journalism Trust, the umbrella organization for VTDigger.org. This piece was first aired on VPR.
In Vermont’s early years, poverty was managed by an elected “overseer of the poor” until we passed the Social Welfare Act of 1967, which formally relieved communities of responsibility for care of their poor and ended the office of “overseer.” The last “poor farm” closed in 1968.
Growing up in a middle-class family in Lamoille County, I knew people who were poor — though they’d have hardly described themselves that way. Many were grateful for the little they had and took both pleasure and pride in work, family, food and neighbors.
My father ran the small Union Carbide office in Morrisville and was twice offered a whopping raise to move to Manhattan, but declined each time. His life was defined by his community, not his assets.
In 1958, Tom Watson opened the IBM plant in Essex and began hiring Vermonters at unprecedented salaries. Many folks sold their struggling hill farms and moved or commuted to the new plant, but others declined to leave neighbors, land and animals.
Our cousin, Sister Ste. Alphonse, took vows of poverty, chastity and silence. But even so, we kids knew her as a joyous presence in our lives when she came to visit.
Poverty is remarkably nuanced. For some, it may be a chosen lifestyle, but for most it’s destitution – an unwanted economic oppression with no exits.
If we wish to alleviate its impacts, and change the social and economic conditions that impose it, we must first listen to those whom we perceive as poor.
The essence of giving is asking someone what they need, not imagining or prescribing it. Our understanding of poverty may well be distorted by our own lack of any experience with exigency or need. And those we see as poor may be offended by that characterization and resent being “rescued.”
And while we’re defined by our differences as human beings, our communities are still collapsing under the weight of our gross financial inequities. Noblesse oblige prompts us to alleviate the effects of poverty but morality obliges us to change the causes of it. To accomplish either of these goals, we must first understand its variability.
And in one historical footnote of uncommon good sense, it’s interesting to note that in an effort to ensure fairness and appropriate empathy, the town of Richmond used to maintain the tradition of electing overseers who at some point had themselves needed help.