Telegraph: Bus tour of poor America on $16 a day

Nashua Telegraphdt.common.streams.StreamServer.cls / OCT 22, 2014

NASHUA – “Richard,” a 28-year-old Montgomery, Ala., man, is the first to admit he “did some stupid stuff” that led to him to drop out of school then drop in to a federal penitentiary to serve time for some armed robberies. Now 28 and out of prison, Richard is nevertheless saddled with the “felon” label, a red flag for potential employers, an automatic banishment from public housing and food stamps. Given all that, it might seem incidental that Richard’s felon status also means he cannot vote.

But to well-known writer and activist Daniel Weeks, Richard’s case is an example of a far greater problem, and illustrates quite clearly the complex relationship between institutional poverty and political power that leaves people like Richard with little if any hope for a political voice.

Weeks, a Nashua resident of two years since moving back to the U.S. from South Africa, recounted for roughly 100 students and faculty at Rivier University on Tuesday his brief friendship with Richard, whom Weeks met during his cross-country “Poor in Democracy” tour in which he researched everyday poverty and disenfranchisement in parts of 30 states.

Weeks’s presentation came at the behest of Bobbie Bagley, Rivier’s director of Public Health and instructor of nursing, who introduced Weeks at Tuesday’s event, which was held in the Benoit Education Center.

She described briefly Weeks’s tour, a six-week adventure for which he held himself to a $16-a-day budget, a figure that represents the poverty line. He traveled roughly 10,000 miles, striking up conversations and interviewing people like Richard in order to fully understand the connection between poverty and democracy.

Weeks recently became executive director of Open Democracy, the New Hampshire-based movement founded by legendary social justice proponent Doris “Granny D” Haddock, who was 100 years old when she died in 2010.

His Greyhound Bus tour, on which he embarked in the fall of 2012, was a component of the research Weeks completed as a fellow of the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, for which he also received support from the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy.

The Atlantic carried a series of stories Weeks penned about his research, some of which also appeared in Business NH magazine.

A native of the small town of Temple, Weeks credited a relationship in his post-graduate study years as his inspiration to pursue the study and research of poverty and its correlation to a lack of political voice.

“I met a woman in South Africa, who happens to be black, and from a very different background,” he said, adding that today, the woman is his wife.

Having come of age during the waning years of South African Apartheid, Weeks said his wife was luckier than most of her slightly-older contemporaries, even older siblings, because she was among the first black students to enroll at superior “white schools” after the fall of Apartheid.

“She was one of two black girls to graduate” from that formerly all-white school, Weeks said.

Her family, though, was fraught with tragedy; two brothers died young, one from AIDS and the other, a car accident. But to his wife’s father, Weeks said, the young men “died of poverty.”

Weeks showed slides Tuesday of several of the many people he met on his tour. Besides Richard there’s “Troy,” a down-on-his-luck man living on the streets of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, and “Louise,” whom Weeks introduced as “self-described ‘white trash’” living in the impoverished hills of Appalachia.

To make sure he didn’t overspend his allotted $16 per day, Weeks said he slept in bus stations and dined at soup kitchens when possible, sometimes bedding down on park benches or in the makeshift campsites inhabited by some of his interviewees.

He recalled with palpable fondness a churchwoman known as “Mamma Donna” whose soup kitchen was Weeks’s first stop after his arduous two-hour walk from the Montgomery bus station.

It was there he met Richard, who passed the time playing chess in the shelter Mamma Donna also oversaw. Prodded about his employment status, Richard recounted his desire to become an electrician – and what derailed his efforts at the 11th hour.

“He got placed in Job Corps, to learn the electrical trade,” Weeks said. “He took the course and was doing quite well.”

Studied and confident, Richard was ready for the final exam, but not the sudden curve ball he was thrown.

“As part of the test he had to scale a (utility) pole and do some kind of electrical work on a transformer or something,” Weeks said.

“But he couldn’t. He’s afraid of heights. He couldn’t do it,” Weeks said.

“So they failed him.”

Dean Shalhoup can be reached at 594-6443 or Also follow Shalhoup on Twitter (@Telegraph_DeanS).


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