Willie Williams and the Path Out of Poverty

By David Burt

I had just attended my organization’s annual ‘day of service’, one day during the year when everyone from the Single Stop USA New York office volunteers at a partner site to offer their time and service in whichever way is most productive.

I was placed in a food pantry about 10 blocks from where I live, my role being direct service, talking to the people that came in and helping them pick out tinned fruit and juice. The day passed pleasantly enough, I chatted with the mostly elderly clients and did my best to work efficiently with the site staff. The afternoon came, I thanked the staff for putting up with me, wished them well and started the walk home.

I took out my music player and put in my earphones, selected ‘shuffle’, thrust my hands into my jacket pockets to escape the chill of the north wind and made my way back. I had not walked more than 10 steps when the familiar opening drumbeat of Willie Williams’ “Armageddon Time” came on, a song I must have heard a thousand times. After Jackie Mittoo’s iconic electronic organ hook, Willie began to sing

“A lotta people won’t get no supper tonight, a lotta people going to suffer tonight.”

And that’s when it struck me.

That some of the people I had been amiably talking to all day were living in food poverty. That right then, that very afternoon in New York, on the 29.96 miles squared of Manhattan, the financial capital of the world and the headquarters of the UN, people were going hungry.

In fact, across the city approximately 2.6 million New Yorkers (mainly women, children, seniors and people with disabilities) are experiencing difficulty affording food for themselves and their families and many have to choose every day between providing food or paying the bills.

Even more New Yorkers (approximately 3 million) live in low-income neighborhoods and ‘food deserts’ with little access to affordable, healthy food. This paired with an abundance of cheaper, low-quality food has led to many New Yorkers facing health problems such as diabetes, obesity and hypertension due to poor diet.

We can start to understand the issue by identifying the underlying causes: low wages, high cost of living, barriers to accessing assistance programs, high cost of health care and a lack of affordable, nutritious food in low-income neighborhoods all contribute to and impede New Yorkers’ inability to access healthy food.

What can we do? Can we end poverty in New York? Can we end income inequity? Can we end unemployment?

The answer is probably not, but we could make change if the political will and the financial capabilities were there.

By assisting people access health and food services that will in turn help them obtain and keep work, stay in school and improve their health. Single Stop USA is making a difference in the fight to end poverty and hunger; two issues that are inextricably intertwined.

As a GHC fellow placed with Single Stop USA as the Programs and Evaluation Fellow I am showing with data that our efforts work.

As Willie Williams went on to sing that afternoon on my walk home “A lotta people won’t get no justice tonight, So a lot of people going to have to stand up and fight”.
I am happy to be working among them.
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