BY Bill Reagan
I wish poverty would go away, but it won’t. I wish poverty were an abstraction, but it isn’t. The poor are people, not abstractions. And there are a lot of them in Harlingen.
The overall poverty rate has not changed much in the last decade. Thirty-two percent of Harlingen residents lived at or below the poverty line in 2016. That figure is fifty percent higher than the state average. There has been some improvement, however. Ten percent of our residents live at or below fifty percent of the poverty level. Only a few years ago that number was fifteen percent.
Forty-one percent of children live at or below the poverty line. More than half the children under the age of five live in poverty. About one in five young people under the age of twenty-five lives in extreme poverty, in a family whose income is less than fifty percent of the poverty level.
Hispanics constitute the overwhelming majority in Harlingen, so it is not surprising that the overwhelming majority of poor people in Harlingen are Hispanic – 15,547 people. The next largest group is the white population – 1,125 people. The rest belong to other racial categories.
Half of the families living in poverty are headed by a married couple. Forty-two percent are headed by a single female.
A lot of statistics, I know, but these statistics represent people. That’s the important thing to remember. It is easy for the rest of us to stereotype the poor. They’re poor, but they’re happy. They’re lazy. They’re drug users. They’re failures, immoral, weak. They are some other bad thing.
Everything that can be said of a poor person can be said of a middle class or rich person. Human beings of all economic levels are happy and sad, selfish and generous, drug users and teetotalers, immoral and upright, lazy and heroic.
But poverty places a special burden on the soul. We all have problems, but most of us have resources to deal with our problems. We have money or insurance.
And poverty places a burden on the rest of us. Nelson Mandela said, “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice.”
Bill Reagan is executive director of Loaves & Fishes of the Rio Grande Valley.