In January of 1963, the year of his assassination, President John F. Kennedy shared his vision for a national service corps “to help provide urgently needed services in urban and rural poverty areas.” Two years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson welcomed the first group of 20 VISTA volunteers.
“Your pay will be low; the conditions of your labor often will be difficult,” he told them.
“But you will have the satisfaction of leading a great national effort and you will have the ultimate reward which comes to those who serve their fellow man.” 1
My name is Carol Danly and I am a new AmeriCorps VISTA with United Way, assigned to the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities in support of the Food and Farming Network. Last week I attended my VISTA pre-service orientation in Columbus, Ohio. As you might expect, VISTAs represent a diverse population. Many are drawn by life experiences to help their communities. Others are new college graduates taking a year off from school and some come out of retirement to serve.
As caring human beings, we all have our favorite issues and causes; mine are culinary nutrition and childhood obesity. But I also see poverty as the root cause of many issues and of the highest priority, so I was lucky to stumble into an assignment that is of personal interest and also addresses poverty: food equity.
I live in Traverse City, where it’s easy to be blind to the poverty in our midst. But recent data indicates roughly 14 percent of our neighbors in the five-county Grand Traverse area live in poverty. As concerning as that number is, it still doesn’t tell the whole story. Earning a wage above the poverty line does not mean an individual’s income is sufficient to support a healthy lifestyle for themselves and their family. For a single parent with two children living in Grand Traverse County, a living wage (i.e. the hourly rate an individual must earn to support a family) is $22.86 an hour. The same parent would have to earn $8.80 an hour or less to be considered as living in poverty. So what happens to our neighbors with incomes between the poverty wage and living wage? 2
This week, seven new VISTAs began their anti-poverty assignments with organizations throughout northwest Michigan. One of the more unique aspects of the VISTA program is that members share the poverty experience with those they are serving. Our living allowance is set at poverty level: $11,676 annually. Many young VISTAs have no assets or savings, and Medicaid and SNAP will help meet their needs. But It’s all part of the VISTA experience.
On July 17, with more than 100 other new VISTA members from all over the U.S., we recited the oath of service “to undertake our obligation without reservation.” We are up to the challenge. This will undoubtedly be a life-changing year.
For more information on the living wage in your county, check out the Living Wage Calculator developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
1 The History of AmeriCorps VISTA, Corporation for National and Community Service
2 Food Security in the Michigan Counties of Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, and Leelanau: A Study by Benzie Sunrise Rotary Club, Beulah, Michigan, December 2014