This weekend, in addition to some work and some drinking with new acquaintances, I volunteered Sat and Sun with a food drive organized by co-workers. They had organized for bins to be set up outside of the area supercenters, and tags to be put up inside the store pointing out non-perishable items you could buy to donate to the drive. My job was to stand outside and let people know on their way in that they could buy to donate on their way out.
The horrible thing was, since we were standing outside stores with the cheapest goods in America, lots of the people we were asking to donate were the same people the food would end up being given to. And they were the ones who pointed it out. On multiple occasions people said things like "we can't even afford food for our whole family" or "he's been in the hospital for so long without a paycheck that I'm sorry but we don't have nothing to give."
I've never seen American poverty like this. I'm used to seeing people dressed raggedly and clearly crack addicts, or clearly lower-income but still dressed in clean/trendy clothes, or just straight homeless trying to find things in the garbage.
But people in rural American look like photographs from the Steinbeck/Oakies era. Their clothing had dirt permanently washed into them, they were missing teeth (granted, in this part of America that could be due to poverty/no dental care, but it could also be the result of meth), but they own cars and probably live in the rickety houses with lawns filled with car parts that I drive by sometimes.
None of this should really be surprising (although when my co-worker told me some people eat cat food because it's cheaper than meat I couldn't believe her), and it's not the level of poverty that shocked me, it's how it was manifested. Even people with nothing prioritize, and what they prioritize here (or what they have to, e.g. a car) is so different from what the same people prioritize in New York. I wonder how long it'll take me to get used to this place.