Pity Won't End Poverty

Second in series of six

When we want to get society, government or philanthropists to pay attention to those at the bottom of our economy the carrot for dollars and policies is to portray the peoples' weaknesses so that we elicit pity and guilt. However, when people at the upper end of the economy want resources or policies for themselves they portray their strengths, talents and the ways that investing in them will add to our society. Portraying the weaknesses of families in poverty may get you resources but does nothing to eliminate negative stereotypes and, in fact, it bolsters the classism as well as the racial and gender schism that divides our society.

That portrayal is based on the belief that the as much as 18 percent of our population living under the poverty level for the last 50 years are the same families "stuck" there generationally. Subsequently those on the right argue that if poverty is passed down like an heirloom, it must be the families' fault. Conservative Bill O'Reilly wrote in May 2015 that "we should have a war against chaotic, irresponsible parents - addictive behavior, laziness, apathy..."

On the liberal side, I sat on a televised panel addressing issues of poverty in Washington, D.C. three years ago. Jared Bernstein, an economic advisor to Vice President Biden was justifying the role of government programs for low income families by claiming that "good decisions are essential" but that "a lot of people don't have the right parents" so they make bad decisions. And if they have good parents, (I hope he meant my mother!) they are "facing a different economic structure" and then implied they weren't smart enough to find their way through our nation's changing economic order. The more conservative voice on the panel, Ron Haskins, recently named by Speaker Ryan as head of a commission on policy, agreed with him.

Raising children and teens is hard enough, but imagine raising them in an environment where leaders across the political spectrum discredit your competency as a parent. The stereotype of the incompetent, uncaring, "wrong" parent, is based on stories that are the exceptions, not the rule, about low- income parents as described in the previous posting here.

The narrative that almost 1 in 5 families and individuals is "stuck" in poverty is deeply flawed. If that many people were stuck generationally as so many conservatives claim, I might agree that those families are lazy or damaged, needing to be saved by outsiders. But I grew up in those neighborhoods and now work in those neighborhoods. Almost everyone I see is working hard and is as smart as anyone else in our nation. I'd even wager that they're probably more ingenious and resourceful than most of us.

Here's why.

The jobs they have may be lousy and they pay very little but the families I grew up with persevere washing our dishes, cleaning our lawns, and picking our grapes and strawberries. It isn't that they are not the right parents. If anything they have talents, make the best decisions possible given limited choices, and contribute greatly to society, including paying their taxes just like everyone else. But all that effort, determination and resourcefulness remains invisible.

You don't have to take my word for it. In a series of studies, the last released in 2014, found that over 97 percent of those in poverty at the start of the study had worked their way out of poverty within four years. The average amount of time they stayed in poverty was only half a year -- hardly "generational."

The reason the percentage doesn't go down is that living as a working poor or even lower middle class person is so unstable that losing jobs -- even temporarily -- puts you under the poverty level and for that six months on average you become part of the 18 percent. The actual number of families below the poverty level at any point vary over time, which demonstrates clearly that these families and people are not helpless. Quite the contrary, from what I experienced and see from the data collected monthly by the Family Independence Initiative (FII), those at the bottom of our economy are some of the most resourceful in our country.

The story of how they do it is pretty common. It generally takes working two minimum wage jobs which are often part-time, in addition to some side business for extra cash. So this is not laziness but rather resourcefulness against incredible barriers. Over 97 percent of those in poverty who I will call the "ninety-seven percenters" look for and find work -- often more than one job -- on their own without having to be trained or case managed. The data collected by FII shows that when we create a supportive environment that honors and encourages families and where they have choice in access to resources, they can make income gains of more than 20 percent in two years. Children start to do better in school when their parents are able to have stronger control over decisions, not less control as some behaviorists claim.

The ninety-seven percenters pay taxes every time they buy diapers, create jobs out of their kitchens, and help one another while continuing to do society's dirtiest jobs for very low wages. Our food is cheaper, homes cleaner and our children are cared for because of their willingness to work hard. They care tremendously for their children, make the best decisions possible given few options and remain stoic when those with more social status and power are patronizing. It's time to ask funders, policy makers and those in influential positions to recognize, promote and fund the positive initiatives taken by all of our society's families.