The pebble and the pond



Abello, Oscar

Imagine what your life would be like if you lived on only two-thirds of your family’s income.

Maybe you wouldn’t be able to afford Villanova. Maybe you would have gone to public school. Maybe you would have had to drive a used car instead of a new car to high school, or maybe you would have had to walk.

What if your living room television was only a 48-inch, not 72? What if your family vacation was only the Jersey Shore? It might be impossible to imagine how many ways a lower standard of living would have made you a completely different person, although no less of a human being.

If you’re signed up for this year’s Day of Service, you might get a better sense of life on two-thirds of your family’s income. The median household income in Philadelphia is $33,229 (all figures are inflation adjusted), which is roughly two-thirds of the national median of $48,451, according to the Census Bureau.

But many of the service sites are in communities where the local median household income is lower and, in some cases, near or even below the federally defined poverty line.

Those going to Siloam, an HIV/AIDS Wellness Center in downtown Philadelphia, will enter a community with a median household income of $21,096. At St. Michael’s Church in North Philadelphia, a group will paint and clean up the parish grounds where the surrounding community boasts a median household income of $18,395. The groups going to the Ronald McDonald House or to the nearby Philadelphia Zoo will be in a community with a median household income of $16,151. The federal poverty line for a family of four is $20,444.

Philadelphia’s 25 percent poverty rate is the highest among the 10 largest cities in America. In the area around Siloam, 35.7 percent of the population is below the poverty line. At St. Michael’s and the area around the Philadelphia Zoo, the poverty rate is 43.7 percent.

While most of the world has been growing economically with the global poor sharing that growth, the United States is unique among high-income countries because its own poor have not shared in its impressive overall growth. In other words, while incomes have been rising on average in the United States, the income of the poorest segment of American society has largely stagnated. The poor, it seems, are being left behind.

That is a glimpse of the world in to which Villanova will toss itself this weekend. Unfortunately, the pond is rapidly evaporating, and the ripples we might make may not travel as far as we might expect based on over-used clichés about ponds and ripples. What hope there is lies in the radical thought that perhaps it is we who are the pond and the world is the pebble.

As hopeful future members of the one percent of the world with a college degree, the weight of our actions is magnified by the privilege afforded by that piece of paper. We will be the world’s largest consumers of anything and everything. We will be living out the higher standards of living to which the urban poor aspire. We are blessed with the opportunity to make a difference by participating in the Day of Service, but we must not forget that maximizing this opportunity means keeping in mind the difference it should make to our lives.

Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote, “True compassion lies not in flinging coins to a beggar, but in recognizing that an edifice which produces beggars must be restructured.” The real lasting difference, if society allows it to happen, will be the recognition of those structures that are producing beggars; be it the manner in which public schools are funded, the attitudes toward HIV/AIDS patients or the historic temerity of the broader financial system to work more closely with urban communities.

Through service, the world can make ripples within each of us if we let it in. You don’t have to imagine life as a poorer person, but you can let the poor affect your life.


Oscar Abello is a senior economics major from Philadelphia, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected]