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An unbearable burden of silence: you can't mince words when it comes to poverty.

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"The happy man feels at ease because the unhappy bear their burdens in silence, and without that silence happiness would be impossible."

The quote is from Anton Chekhov in Gooseberries, a classic Russian story that reminds me of a blunt line from Paul Simon's song, The Boxer, written in 1968 while I was away doing my country's bidding in Asia: "A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."

I was a writer in the armed forces then, and I'm still a writer now. I still write about war, but I've added several other tragic topics while plodding through a career as a professional do-gooder. There's disease, ignorance and all kinds of misery.

And then, there are people who are poor and starving.

My little company writes a great deal about people who are poor and starving. But we're not allowed to use the words "poor" or "starving" unless these unfortunate people live somewhere outside the United States.

If these people are our neighbors inside our own country, they're economically challenged and they're dealing with food insecurity. Countries in Europe, picking up on the language preferences of social service bureaucracies, are starting to talk this way, too.

If you don't buy into social service jargon, the favored phrases for describing poverty sound silly if not completely puzzling. After all, what boundaries define "food insecurity"--not having enough lunchmeat in the fridge? And, does a term like "economically challenged" have any meaning at all?

But I'm less bothered by the emptiness and absurdity of these terms than their insidious ability to mask the realities of grinding poverty and death-dealing starvation. These hideous realities are no secret to the bureaucracies that bend truth with jargon.

Try to find a social worker in America who doesn't know about kids who have little or nothing to eat from school lunch on Friday to school breakfast on Monday. A kid like that is not dealing with food insecurity. That child is hungry ... hungry to the point of sickness. That small, helpless human being is not living within an economically challenged family. This is a child being ground into the dirt by poverty.

I'm told it's inappropriate to use the word "poor" in describing a given family's situation because it will harm that family's dignity. But, let me respond.

To talk about dignity when a child fives on the bare rim of survival--when a little boy or girl goes two days with almost nothing to eat--is superfluous. Our first responsibility is to feed that child, make sure he or she gets decent medical care, gets an education and a chance to break out of poverty's cycle.

We can concern ourselves about the family's dignity when there's some dignity to worry about. In the meantime, please, let's get off our intellectual high horses, roll up our sleeves, and get to work ... because there is life-saving, life-changing work that needs to be done right now.

If that last sentence sounds like it came straight out of a direct mail fundraising letter, it's no accident. Nonprofit organizations cannot do their work without the partnership of people who participate in their missions by writing checks. And here's a conundrum: It's easier for a fundraising writer to describe the life of a hungry kid in Africa than the life of the American kid who doesn't eat on Saturdays and Sundays.

Writers can accurately describe the lives of destitute people in Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America. We can explain extreme poverty in a way that would make most domestic charities blush. While we must be sparing in the use of the word "starvation," a good copywriter will have lots of ways to make the same point.

We fail Americans who suffer in poverty when we do not speak of their lives in the same kind of straightforward, honest language. We do not protect their dignity. By hiding the reality of their lives from donors who can make a difference, we help lock them into a situation where no dignity will ever be possible.

If we don't serve poor and starving people when language pulls its punches, exactly what interest do we serve? Holding back on the truth in direct mail and electronic media doesn't serve nonprofits because weaker, less emotional copy generally results in fewer responses and lower average gift levels.

What we serve is that unacknowledged desire that Anton Chekhov and Paul Simon so furiously attacked. We feed people's need to hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest.

Take Chekhov's quote to mean exactly what it says as we apply it in today's America. Yes, of course a middleclass guy like me feels unhappy knowing that a kid in the next neighborhood has nothing to eat all weekend. Yes, this big, tough veteran once pulled his car over to the curb and cried after seeing a miserable kid sitting on a swing in an inner-city playground.

Poverty is a bear. It's hard to look poverty in the eye, hard to think about hungry kids. But this stuff is real. And if we really want things to change, we must share this difficult reality with America's people. We must stop hiding it from them ... stop hiding it behind euphemisms.

To do anything less ... to force the unhappy to bear their burdens in silence ... is to betray the moral duty we took up when we devoted our careers to service in the nonprofit sector.

Thomas K. Keller is president of Blue Crane Creative, a direct response fundraising firm in Cincinnati, Ohio. His email is kellercopy@aol.com
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Author:Keller, Thomas K.
Publication:The Non-profit Times
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2010
Words:933
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