Saturday, October 31, 2015

What *Is* Poverty?

Saturday, October 31, 2015

"We have historically understood poverty as moral failure. And, in fact, we have an entire sort of architecture of language we use to talk about this, the culture of poverty, the notion that there is something inherent in individuals that leads them to be poor, some sort of moral, emotional, intellectual failing, or some sort of collective culture that is born and bred in poor communities, in which we pass poverty around almost as if it's some sort of disease."

- Stephen Pimpare in an interview on Democracy Now

Yesterday was a special day. I attended an event on the University of Minnesota campus to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the AmeriCorps program. I currently work for a non-profit organization focused on providing skills development for homeless youth here in the Twin Cities. It can be very demanding work. But I am enjoying it nonetheless.

During the commemoration of the AmeriCorps program I was introduced to Stephen Pimpare through a video presentation that offers thirteen lessons regarding our collective understanding of poverty. I found many of the lessons presented in the video to be spot on. I am going to specifically write a bit about two lessons contained in the video. These are the third and seventh lessons presented in the video. The particular issues examined in these lessons are that "childhood poverty is toxic" and "persistent poverty is a disability problem."

In the third lesson Pimpare notes that poverty "is exceedingly stressful...especially for children." Put succinctly children who are at a disadvantage in their earliest years are more likely to struggle with significant challenges over the duration of their lives. It thus follows that any successful strategy to alleviate and eradicate poverty must address childhood development and how a society takes care of its children. In lesson seven a quote from Shawn Fremstad notes that "disability is both a fundamental cause and consequence of poverty." A person's ability to work (as well as the skills they can offer in the labor market) is thus also a significant predictor of risk for poverty.

While I found Pimpare's presentation quite compelling I still find it rather problematic that poverty is so often equated with monetary deprivation. In my mind poverty is so much more than a lack of money and the subsequent consequences of having little money. There are many more important factors that contribute to a good life. Consider what makes for a good childhood.

It's obvious that children need the same things that any other human beings need. They need food, shelter and clothing. But they also need consistency in their relationships. They need caregivers and other people they can rely upon to provide them not just material sufficiency but also the more intangible nurture we speak of when we use words such as love, care, friendship and so on. When children grow up in a world defined by chaos, confusion, insufficiency and violence the stress of such circumstances can (and often does) have serious consequences. Pimpare notes that such stress exacts physiological consequences...among other things. Indeed, stress can create an enormous toll. To appreciate the impact of stress I encourage any of my dear readers to read from the resources of post-trauma coach Michele Rosenthal. A cursory review of her videos and other resources will further substantiate Pimpare's emphasis on the physiological consequences of stress.

So in the spirit of speaking about what poverty "looks like" I offer my own list of what poverty tangibly can look and feel like:

Poverty is:

  • Not knowing if your mother or father will have a reliable income because job opportunities in the local community are inconsistent.
  • Not having a reliable source of clean water because a local plant polluted your water source and was not held accountable for its conduct.
  • Not feeling you can trust the people who serve in your community's police department.
  • Wondering if you will get a welfare benefit you rely upon in a timely way because your local county office is understaffed.
  • Having your father serving in the military overseas and not knowing when (or if) he will return home safely.
  • Living in a culture where the predominant media distracts the populace from pressing issues rather than contributes to a healthy discourse about those issues.
  • Having no viable work options in your community that pay you a living wage.
  • Being victimized by the policies put in place due to the undue power of special interest groups (the many members of said groups apparently think their own rights are more important than yours).
  • Having no promising options to repay your student loans.
  • Being a student in a school system that pays insufficient attention to issues such as bullying, gang violence and drug abuse.
  • Having no real time to spend with those you love...because you are too busy working to make a living.
  • Living with a disability and having insufficient support to provide for your most basic needs on a daily basis.

These are just a few of the realities I think of when I think of poverty. Of the "looks" of poverty I noted above I can identify several that I have personally experienced.

I personally feel quite good today. I have had the leisure to actually sit and write out my thoughts here in my blog. I have been able to get some chores done and not feel rushed! I have eaten healthy food and not felt rushed as I prepared it. I have also enjoyed an atmosphere of calm and serenity. Many people living in violent neighborhoods both throughout America as well as abroad would feel quite fortunate to have a completely quiet day not punctuated by gunfire.

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I invite you to accompany me as I document my own journey of healing. My blog is designed to offer inspiration and solace to others. If you find it of value I welcome you to share it with others. Aloha!