Monday, June 10, 2013

The Traveling Poor: A Slice of Society

June 7, 1013

It was the second encounter I have had with the new segment of society known as "the traveling poor." I am not old enough to remember the days of the Great Depression when hobos rode the rails and unemployed people lived in Hoovervilles, but I remember my grandmother's stories of the well-mannered and soft-spoken men who would appear at her backdoor, asking politely it she could spare a slice of bread or a cup of coffee. Nanny always had something ready to give to those in need; she and my grandfather were fortunate in that the owner of the house they rented was a kind-hearted man who could wait for the rent.

During the cold months, Nanny would ask the traveler to come inside and warm up. "But they would always decline," she said. "They'd say, 'No ma'am, I'll just stand out here in the yard." They never failed to thank her for the food and always asked if there was some chore they might do to repay her, such as shoveling the walk or weeding the garden. The hobos came regularly; obviously, someone had placed one of those enigmatic hobo symbols on my grandmother's house, probably the cat that signified "A kind lady lives here."

My grandmother said they never had any trouble at all with this segment of society. "They were decent, God-fearing men," my Nanny would say. "Just down on their luck."

That was then. This is now. There are whole families, now homeless, wandering from town to town. Most often, they have some kind of a car, but have lost their homes and their jobs. Unbelievably, when I searched "traveling poor" on Google, I found nothing to help me understand just who this segment of our society is.

The first time I met members of this group, my daughter and I encountered a couple with their dog standing at the corner of Grubb Road and Route 13 in Claymont, Delaware. We had just picked up supper at Boston Market and, due to a buy-one-get-one sale, still had twenty dollars in our pockets. The woman stood on one corner with a tattered umbrella and a cardboard sign that said, "Traveling Poor"; the man stood on the other corner, holding the leash of a sad and bedraggled dog. Generally, I do not give handouts. I am not mean, but I prefer my charity to be in the way of food or actions. But the couple looked so forlorn, and the dog so sad that I held out my remaining twenty dollars to the woman when we stopped at the traffic light. She came up to the car--looking way too young to be in such a predicament--and accepted the bill with a lovely smile.

We thought about going back to Boston Market and buying them food. But it was, as I said, raining. We wanted to get home, where it as dry and safe. We had at least, my daughter and I agreed, done something.

Just two days ago, though, we had our second encounter with a member of the traveling poor. I was with my son this time, and pulling out of the Walmart parking lot at Larkin's Corner when we saw him, a man and his dog huddled under an umbrella in the rain, sitting on a piece of canvas. This man, too, held a sign: "Traveling poor." Parked behind him was a rusted hulk of a car that probably would not pass inspection. But when I handed my son some bills and he held them out the window, the man with the dog was ineffably polite:

The weather is getting warmer, the economy is still sluggish. Medicare is threatening to cut benefits and many, many people are still out of work. 

In a recent book, Confronting Suburban Poverty, authors Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube confront the issue of suburban poverty, referring to the "changing map of American poverty." Poverty, once primarily an inner city issue, is now regional in scope. Scenes like the one above are being played out in shopping center and street corners all over suburbia. According to government statistics from 20120, one in three Americans is poor or close to poor. To learn more about this "new trend" in the plight of the traveling poor, you can follow this link and download a free chapter of the book.

What is the answer? Better jobs, lower living costs, re-education for the unemployed? They would all help, I am sure. But maybe the real answer is in response of the man with his dog, sitting by the side of the road on a wet piece of canvas.With a smile, he took the three dollar bills my son offered to him and said, "Thank you, sir, for helping me on my journey."

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