Students Should Support Neighbors Through Programs Like OCS

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America today is defined by skyrocketing economic inequality, broken social welfare systems, and politicians who seem apathetic about both. The political and social institutions that are supposed to ensure the health and safety of all citizens simply do not work, and the discrepancies in who benefits from them are only growing more extreme.

These realities were painfully obvious during the recent federal government shutdown, which stretched from Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018 to Friday, Jan. 25 of this year — the longest in U.S. history.

Almost immediately, stories of federal workers struggling to make ends meet while deprived of their normal paychecks began to flood national media. The shutdown had a huge impact, even beyond those directly affected.

Those impacts were felt right here in Oberlin. Last week, the Review published “Effects of Shutdown Ripple Through Oberlin,” which looked at how Oberlin residents were affected by the shutdown and how the community rallied to support them.

Oberlin Community Services, a local direct assistance and outreach organization, was particularly impacted. Demand for their services — which include rent and mortgage assistance, helping residents afford medication, and food assistance — rose far above typical levels. In response, Oberlin City Council made an unprecedented allocation of $4,000 taxpayer dollars to help OCS get through the shutdown.

While all this was happening, politicians in Washington seemed completely divorced from the dire realities of the shutdown. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and President Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump made particularly inflammatory comments that drew well-deserved ire, but other Republicans — and, frankly, some Democrats — did not seem to understand the urgency of going more than a month without pay.

While those comments were made specifically about the shutdown, they are representative of incredibly harmful political dynamics. Specifically, those at the very top of the U.S.’s political and economic structures have done an excellent job concentrating wealth and power and hoarding it from everybody else.

For better or worse, this leaves organizations like OCS to pick up the slack. In the wealthiest country in the history of the world, it is stunning that a battle over a racist border wall caused a government shutdown lasting more than a month. It is even more disheartening that the responsibility for addressing its impacts fell directly on the shoulders of already overworked, under-resourced organizations — but here we are.

There are many lessons to take away from the shutdown, but perhaps the most immediately relevant is how vital the work of organizations like OCS is. Without OCS, many Oberlin residents would have struggled even more during the shutdown — that alone is a testament to the organization’s importance.

It’s also a testament to why members of the College community, particularly students, should support OCS and other programs in Oberlin that help meet the various needs of residents. While right-wing narratives about Oberlin students living in a bubble are often misplaced and sometimes malicious, it is true that the average student here comes from greater means and privilege than the average American and certainly the average resident of Northeast Ohio — Lorain County has higher poverty rates than the country as a whole, and Oberlin specifically has a poverty rate that fluctuates between 20–25 percent.

Take time to volunteer, donate, or even just get to know the folks who work at OCS. They do incredible work to support this community, often in ways that we students are entirely oblivious to. The College should not exist in a largely wealthy silo: It is important that we leverage our institutional resources to address the needs of the broader community.

There was once a time in Oberlin’s history when the triumphs and challenges of the town and College were linked more closely than they are now. In many ways, we no longer rise and fall as one, and that disconnect threatens an otherwise powerful solidarity.

In a time when obstacles on the national level seem overwhelming, it’s vital to dig in right here in Oberlin and rediscover that solidarity. Supporting the work of OCS — particularly in these uncertain political times — is one important step, of many, in that direction.

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