Editor's Notebook: Do we have an obligation to help the poor? Can we end poverty?
Perhaps the answer might be found in the stories and also in the voices of some Illinoisans who themselves live in the poorest communities in the state ? among the poorest in America."
John Wesley Fountain
For most of us, poverty is a grim statistic. For others, it's a personal narrative. And for some it's a moral imperative. John Wesley Fountain brings all three perspectives to bear in this month'sPaul Simon Essay,Burning question.
Fountain grew up poor on Chicago's West Side in the neighborhood of North Lawndale, which he says is still among the poorest communities. He managed to move up and out of poverty, becoming a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a staff writer for The Washington Postand a national correspondent for The New York Times, where he covered a 12-state region from Chicago.
Among his memorable pieces for that paper was an extensive report on poverty, including a profile of Illinois' Pembroke Township, a destitute community near Kankakee, where paved roads and running water are luxuries. Pam Koner, a mother in Westchester, N.Y., saw the piece and started an organization that has been sending food and clothing from New York state to Pembroke, and to Cairo, another impoverished Illinois town, for nearly five years. (Who among us won't feel shame at hearing this?)
Fountain has been a guest essayist on National Public Radio's This I Believe series, and he's the author of True Vine: A Young Black Man's Journey of Faith, Hope and Clarity. The title comes from the name of his grandfather's True Vine Church of God in Christ, where, he writes here, he found faith, and "the church mothers also gave me all the tangibles for a faith-led exodus from poverty... ."
He's now a professor of journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Most recently, he tells us, he's teaching memoir writing.
Fountain was, in short, the perfect choice for the question we wanted to explore in this year's Paul Simon Essay: What collective responsibility do we have for the poor?
Some of our readers might be a little surprised to read a first-person opinion essay in the pages of Illinois Issues, but we believe it's in the spirit of these occasional, commissioned pieces.
It's true that the magazine's mission has always been to publish in-depth reporting and analyses of policy questions, but we haven't consistently approached issues from an ethical or moral perspective. And rarely have we published first-person accounts on policy issues. But we think Simon would have liked this piece.
One of the magazine's founders, Simon had a deep interest in the moral and ethical dimensions of a wide range of issues, so the essay series we established in his name will take clear, and sometimes personal, positions about the state's collective responsibilities. We believe such ethics-centered essays will enhance public discourse.
Our first essay, Civic virtues, by religion and politics scholar Jean Bethke Elshtain, was published in May 2005. Supported by the Joyce Foundation, it examined why we have a responsibility to participate in the political process and explored ways to build a civic society.
We need to thank you, our readers, for digging deep and contributing generously to the Paul Simon Essay Fund, making this and future essays possible. We hope you'll be as moved by Fountain's piece as we were.
What, he asks, is our moral responsibility to the poor? "Perhaps the answer," he writes of his tour from the southern tip of the state north to Chicago, "might be found in the stories and also in the voices of some Illinoisans who themselves live in the poorest communities in the state — among the poorest in America."
Yet his trip brings him full circle to his own childhood neighborhood, to the experience of growing up poor, to leaving poverty behind.
"I am reminded that the need here goes far beyond money," he writes. "I am reminded that growing up I was never really poor, just broke.
"Mostly, I am reminded of the pain of poverty, the lack I felt as a child and the feeling of that moment when I found hope — and how I know now that if I had not found hope, or had it not found me, I might not be here."
And for that reason, Fountain writes, when "faith, hard work and education" led him and his family out of North Lawndale and out of poverty, he vowed to remember that, "unless we all 'make it,' none of us ever truly makes it."
For your convenience, we have provided a link to the University Foundation. Please remember to tell them you want your gift to go into the Paul Simon Essay Fund.
Contribute by making a gift here to the PAUL SIMON ESSAY FUND at the University of Illinois Foundation
Peggy Boyer Long can be reached at Peggyboy@aol.com.
Illinois Issues, May 2007