This should come as little surprise for those who pay attention to the world around them, but poverty is a significant problem in Murfreesboro, and has been since long before the pandemic. The answer, for the time being, is mutual aid and community organization.
Tennessee fairly consistently ranks as one of the worst states for low-income citizens, despite the relatively low cost of living. More than 14% of Murfreesboro residence live below the poverty line, nearly 20,000 people, and nearly 5% live with an income of less than half of the poverty line. This population is disproportionately made up of people of color, mostly immigrants, with less than a high school education. More than half of part-time workers in Murfreesboro live below the poverty line. While data on homelessness in specific cities is hard to track down, Tennessee estimates about 7,500 residents are completely homeless, making up a little more than 1% of the population.
All of this data was collected before the COVID-19 pandemic, and one should keep in mind that the "poverty line" is a rather extreme measure, coming to about $12,000 for a single person and $26,500 for a four-person household. Many Tennesseans live above the poverty line while still struggling paycheck to paycheck and forgoing expenses like medicine, transportation, and meals whenever necessary.
The state seems either unbothered, or at the very least, unwilling to provide significant resources to address these problems. Republican leaders continue to resist medicaid expansion and prioritize a bizarre, "rainy day fund" over important social spending.
I could take this time to speak to the failures of our government and system as a whole. It is, after all, true that all poverty should be seen as a systemic failure. This is particularly true of those who are employed and are still forced to live in poor and unstable housing or miss meals, but truthfully, our systems ought to affirm the humanity of all people by totally eradicating poverty with universal programs.
While this argument is a worthwhile use of one's time, I think it might be better to suggest a path to bringing at least some relief to our neighbors as we fight for a more loving and equitable economic and political system.
That path is mutual aid.
While mutual aid is often mistaken for charity, and has some overlap, I would argue that it is a much more effective strategy for empowering our communities and protecting our fellow citizens. Far from attacking charity, though, I would say that mutual aid is simply a better approach to helping one another and building stronger, safer communities.
Mutual aid, in contrast to the means testing and overly targeted efforts of many charities, focuses on building consistent and community-run spaces which can meet the needs of a community day in and day out. Projects in Murfreesboro like the Community Fridge, Thursday Table (in which I am partially involved), and the Community Garden all exemplify these values perfectly.
Charity is often bureaucratic in nature, coming with added responsibilities for recipients, and actively avoids any semblance of being "political." Mutual aid, on the other hand, is expressly political, aiming to not only address the worst symptoms of poverty, but to organize and unite working people around a critique of its systemic causes. Mutual aid meets our fellow workers where they are, attempts to address their immediate needs no matter what they are without expecting anything in return, and carries with it a critique which is tremendously important.
The message is key as it is a message of solidarity. Mutual aid meets those who are struggling and tells them that they are neither alone, nor at fault in their struggles. We loudly state that, as human beings, we all deserve conditions of life which are far higher than what many of us experience. That their shortcomings or mistakes, no matter what they are, do not strip them of their humanity and do not invalidate their basic rights.
Instead, these rights are violated by a system which does not value human life above profit, a system which relies on human suffering in order to drive cheap and exploitable labor, and above all, a capitalist system which can be changed.
Most importantly, mutual aid is not driven from the top down. It is, fundamentally, a practice of community building which places listening as its primary aim, that we might effectively identify the needs and of our community and build power and organization around meeting those needs.
I must admit that most of this piece can be nicely summed up by a single sentence from the great Eugene V. Debbs: "While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
The challenge before us is tremendous, and without solidarity and mutual aid, we will never find the strength to surmount it.