Sunday, Oct. 17, was the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. With most Columbia students busy studying for midterms or stalking their peers on Facebook, this past Sunday passed without so much as a whimper. Extreme poverty, however, remains an ever-present if overlooked issue, with more than half of the human population subsisting on less than $2 per day and nearly 17,000 children starving to death each day.
Though the extent of this human tragedy is shocking and disturbing, I’m a realistic person. I didn’t expect people to care. I didn’t expect us to care. Extreme poverty mainly occurs in far-off places such as Africa and Asia. For Ivy League students at one of the most expensive universities in the world, the fact that suffering people are too far away and too different from us makes it difficult for their pain to truly mean anything to us. This I can understand.
But what of those hungry and poor whom we consciously choose not to see? In New York City, one-fifth of all children are “food insecure,” meaning they must rely on food pantries and soup kitchens in order to eat. In total, 1.4 million people—mostly women, children, the elderly, and the disabled—must rely on such emergency food aid. Out of a total population of nine million, some 3.3 million New Yorkers have difficulty feeding their families. In the richest city in the richest country in the world, people go hungry every night.
I’m certainly not suggesting that many generous and kind Columbia students don’t do their part to give back to the community. Indeed, I would like to applaud organizations such as Community Impact and its Columbia volunteers for their efforts to help improve the lives of many of those less fortunate. And I understand college is a bubble. I understand that we are all busy and stressed and sleep-deprived. Most importantly, I understand that in the grand scheme of things, college undergraduates can’t truly help the poor and the hungry, whether in New York or overseas. It’s terrible and it’s sad.
What makes me actually angry, however, is indifference. In recent times, thousands have marched to protest or support issues such as health care, gay marriage, and civil rights. Where is that same emotion when it comes to the most fundamental human dignity—the right to eat? Where is your anger? Where is your indignation? Where is your outrage?
As one of the site directors for the Columbia Project for the Homeless, I am often met with indifference when it comes to the homeless. New York City law requires all shelters to be staffed by one non-resident volunteer, and Columbia PFH recruits Columbia students to volunteer to help shelters stay open. Despite the fact that the shelter is located in a synagogue and is completely safe, enthusiasm evaporates once the idea of staying overnight at a homeless shelter is introduced. One of the other coordinators recounted a time while recruiting for volunteers: He asked a student, “Would you like to help the homeless?” The student responded, “No.”
Let me be clear: I’m not asking Columbia students to go out and “change the world.” I’m not even asking Columbia students to do… well, anything. I just want people to care a little bit more about the less fortunate. Failing that, we should at least wonder why we can’t be bothered. For not too far away, we are breaking a promise inherent to the psyche of New York City: “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
The author is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in economics and history. He is a site coordinator for Columbia Project for the Homeless.