There is considerable mobility in economic status (up and down) in the United States. Only a small percentage of people stay in poverty over lengthy periods of time. We know from the study I cited in the previous post that over a four year period only 2% of people where in poverty for every month over a four year period. About 80% were in poverty for less than a year. That said, there are many more who live their lives at, or just above, the poverty line who find themselves in and out of poverty over most of their lives. I think it is safe to say that probably somewhere from 5% to 10% of people are in these circumstances, which could be upwards of 30 million people. The majority are White, although a highly disproportionate number of Blacks and Hispanics are in these circumstances. It is often assumed that poverty is largely an urban problem but studies I have read suggest there may be nearly as many poor in rural areas as in our urban cores. (Relatively rural Mississippi is the state with the highest poverty rate.) What is our response to the poor among us in the context of the twenty-first century United States? The most obvious answer seems to be that we need to give the more financial resources.
The poverty rate for families in 1959, before the Great Society programs of the Johnson administration, was at 22.4%. It dropped to 17.3% by 1965, the year the Great Society programs began to be rolled out. The rate dropped again to 14.7% in 1966 and eventually hit an all time low in 1973 of 11.3%. For the more than thirty years since 1973, the rate has fluctuated between 11.3% and 15.3%. It currently stands at 12.6%. All this is to say that more than three decades of wealth redistribution programs have not eliminated poverty. This is not to say that financial aid to the poor is wrong or bad. However, it is to say that it is insufficient.
Our problem is that we have looked at poverty through a purely materialistic lens. People in long-term poverty definitely need resources, but investment of financial resources without investments of other kinds of resources is futile. Dr. Ruby Payne has written some highly readable and widely used books to help educators understand poverty. In her book A Framework for Understanding Poverty, she lists resources requisite to being a functioning person in our society.
- Financial: Having the money to purchase goods and services.
- Emotional: Being able to choose and control emotional responses, particularly to negative situations, without engaging in self-destructive behavior. This is an internal resource and shows itself through stamina, perseverance, and choices
- Mental: Having the mental abilities and acquired skills (reading, writing, computing) to deal with daily life.
- Spiritual: Believing in divine purpose and guidance.
- Physical: Having physical health and mobility.
- Support Systems: Having friends, family, and backup resources available to access in times of need. These are external resources.
- Relationships/Role Models: Having frequent access to adult(s) who are appropriate, who are nurturing to the child, and who do not engage in self-destructive behavior.
- Knowledge of Hidden Rules: Knowing the unspoken cues and habits of a group. (1)
Many of us take these for granted but for the underclass poor, many of these are absent. All the financial resources in the world will not help if these other resources are not presnet. Here are just a couple of examples of how this lack of resources plays out.
First, drawing the field of psychology, Payne points out that when we speak to others and internally to ourselves, we use three voices:
- The Child Voice: Defensive, victimized, emotional, whining, losing attitude, strongly negative non-verbal.
- The Parent Voice: Authoritative, directive, judgmental, evaluative, win-lose mentality, demanding, punitive, sometimes threatening (though it can be loving and supportive)
- The Adult Voice: Non-judgmental, free of negative non-verbal, factual, often in question format, attitude of win-win. (2)
The adult voice in this triad is the one that mediates between the child and parent voices. It often uses abstract reasoning and sophisticated cognitive skills to evaluate the content of the child and parent voices. The poor tend to be lacking or without the Adult voice. Consequently, when dealing with authority, there is the tendency to use the child’s voice. When in positions of authority there is the tendency to use the parent voice. When there is internal conflict, the battle is between parent and child. Yet the great majority of middle and upper middle class conversations occur in the adult voice.
When police officers respond to a call, the first thing they do is size of up the situation. They start by asking folks “What happened?” A middle class person will tend to respond with a statement like, “My neighbor collapsed on her front porch.” When asking someone in poverty, the officer often receives a jangled rambling story describing all that happened with a host of inconsequential details. The person lacks the ability to abstract out what is pertinent from the series of events. It is a jumble of actions, emotions and perceptions. As Payne observes:
If an individual depends upon a random, episodic story structure for memory patterns, lives in an unpredictable environment, and has not developed the ability to plan then…
If an individual cannot plan, he/she cannot predict.
If an individual cannot predict, he/she cannot identify cause and effect.
If an individual cannot identify cause and effect, he/she cannot identify consequence.
If an individual cannot identify consequence, he/she cannot control impulsivity.
If an individual cannot control impulsivity, he/she has an inclination toward criminal behavior. (3)
One of the absolutely essential factors in achieving personal economic prosperity is the ability to have a long term time horizon and the ability to engage in deferred gratification.
Second, relationships are valued by people in all social strata. However, in poverty, one often has no resources other than their network of family and friends. When family or friends leave, the people left behind experience great loss of resources. Therefore, when someone decides to get an education by finishing high school and going to college, often that person’s social network goes into action to prevent them succeeding. I know more than one African-American from a poverty background who has completed college who endured constant criticism from family and friends for trying to be White and uppity. The same pertains to the poor from other communities. If the ambitious person succeeds, he/she may leave the community and a resource will be lost.
These are just a couple of the examples of the challenges faced in equipping people with the skills to be stewards of God in the economic life of the community. Financial investment is only one small part of the problem. Other resources are every bit as much in need and they are not being provided.
(1) Ruby K. Payne, A Framework for Understanding Poverty. Highlands , TX: aha! Publications, Revised, 2005. 7.
(2) Payne, 83-84.
(3) Payne, 90.
(Note: If you are interested in more of Payne's material be sure to check out Hidden Rules of Class and What Every Church Member Should Know About Poverty. You will have to scroll to the right book at these links.)