Living below the poverty line results in predictable and preventable mental and medical illnesses. Malnutrition, shortened lifespans, increased mortality — especially infant mortality occur. Sundry diseases related to increased stress levels such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes result in non-reimbursed emergency room visits. Little or no pre- and perinatal care, increased sexually infectious diseases threaten newborns with lifelong physical and mental impairments.

Crime as well is positively correlated with poverty. Bakersfield’s poverty maps show that poverty also is found in densely populated “ghettos.” Poverty is found highly correlated with lack of education. The list of poverty predicates and correlates goes on and on. And poverty rates, despite all efforts to reduce them, are not going down. Twenty-two percent of the population in Kern County (852,490 people) live below the poverty line, a number that is higher than the national average of 14.7 percent. Persons without health insurance under age 65 years: 9.7 percent.

President Johnson began the war on poverty in 1964 with the creation of all kinds of assistance programs which have ballooned in number beyond imagination. According to Louis Medina, The Bakersfield Californian will soon be publishing a newspaper insert listing more than 200 agencies that address the needs of those trapped in poverty which can use volunteer help and contributions to support their many and sundry programs. Stay tuned.

An aside: Psychologist Abraham Maslow tells us we have built into us a hierarchy (a pyramid) of needs which appear and disappear by their strength. Two of our most powerful physical needs, trumping everything else in terms of raw power, are for food and shelter. Until these two basic needs are fully met, nothing else matters. The third strongest is for safety, the fourth is for companionship and esteem, the fifth (the weakest) is for self-realization/actualization (… I gotta be me).

As we go up the hierarchy, the needs get weaker and will disappear in order to have the lower level more powerful needs met. That’s where our ethics and the Kegley Institute come in. Reactive ethics — we are confronted with an ethical choice in the moment and must decide then and there between right and wrong; proactive ethics — we seek continually to right ongoing ethical wrongs. How well are we ethically conducting ourselves here in Kern County when we are made aware of so many of our brethren living in crushing poverty?

So why should we care? Living on two dollars a day was the topic of a recent Kegley Institute of Ethics panel seminar. Living on two dollars a day means living in disillusioned, toilsome, tiresome, weary, dreary desperation all the time every day, year in, year out — with no hope, nor time, nor energy left to do anything about one’s higher needs.

We need to be concerned about those in that plight. If for no other reason than our faith, our shared humanity and the apothegm “there but for the grace of god…” We have an inviolable moral/ethical duty to concern ourselves with the concerns of those whose lives are driven by survival hardships. Our duties to our brothers and sisters demand of us ethical actions displayed by justice and mercy — the palpable systole and diastole of the moral/ethical life.

Are we acting ethically if we forget to look to the survival concerns of our diverse community? We often “other-ize” those not inside our cliques. And once we do, we lose sight of their needs. We don’t really “see” them or their worries. They’re “outside” our closed circles. What’s outside disappears from our radar. But our faith’s confessions, and our very humanity, are supposed to turn that radar sharply on to our brothers’ needs and suffering.

Cain’s first question was about being his brother’s keeper. All western faith traditions in unison shout “yes.” Shirking that hallowed duty we part ways from the most central of benevolent precepts. We’re told that confession and repentance are good, but religious truth tells us that consecrated moral/ethical conduct is best.

So, back to the above poverty data. How well are we doing ethically? The numbers and the trend speak for themselves.

Dr. Brik McDill of Bakersfield is a retired psychologist.

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