There's Poverty...

Last Updated: December 17, 2013

This article appeared in the December 2013 Rural Policy Matters.

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There’s poverty and then there’s poverty.

Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, said it in his presentation at the Rural Education Summit at Berea College in Kentucky last month. He’s certainly said it before. The immediate context in this case was Canada’s story of a weekend visit he made as a Bowdoin College student to the home of one of his classmates. The friends had talked often about poverty and its effects, and Canada told the story as if he had been pretty sure at the time that he was the greater authority in the conversation because he had grown up in a very poor neighborhood in the South Bronx.

Then the two arrived at his friend’s rural home in the dead of New England winter. There was little insulation and almost no heat. Canada said he was shocked to learn that they would be using the facilities down the path, though the temperature was well below freezing. The nearest neighbors were miles away.

“There’s poverty and then there’s poverty,” Canada said.

The point was not that either rural or urban poverty is worse. Poverty takes a lot of forms, in a variety of places, in varying depths and persistence, all damaging to some degree. The stake of the story, and the conversations at the Rural Education Summit, is that the United States has a problem with poverty and it’s time we start talking about and doing something about it.

Twenty-two percent of children in the U.S. live in poverty. As American income inequality has hardened, the likelihood that any individual person or family will move out of the economic circumstances into which they were born has fallen. Except for those individuals born into the luckiest families or the highest economic brackets, evidence suggests the long-term circumstances of most Americans, especially young people, are more likely to decline than improve.

But the conversation at Berea wasn’t about the declining prospects of the middle class (and there are middle class kids who attend Promise Neighborhood schools). It was about the very real obstacles in the paths of children and youth born into America’s deepest poverty.

More to the point, it was about what three rural Promise Neighborhoods are doing to demonstrate that poverty does not have to be a life sentence and that investments in the right comprehensive supports and resources in communities with high percentages of very poor children and youth will pay off—for those young people and their families and for the future of this country.

It’s brave work. 

To begin with, the premise itself requires acknowledging poverty and its effects and that opens a host of difficult conversations.

Promise Neighborhood is clear that what's missing in poor communities are middle class supports. But within the larger cultural context there is a strong impulse to pin that deficit of supports--and the resultant problems--on residents in those communities rather than on structures and policy decisions whose responsibility is widely shared. 

In saying that we will meet the strengths of people living in poverty--the brains and talent and life force of kids, and the desire of parents to see their children flourish, and the will of communities to thrive--with resources to make good on all that potential, we acknowledge both the accomplishments and the yet-untapped reservoirs.

This is where the conversations start. Not with what's wrong in communities, but with what's strong and capable. Then we can begin to address the structural forces that squander so many lives and so much talent. 

And to examine those forces we have to look at culture. No, not the so-called culture of poverty, that shallow construct of blame, but at American culture and how we as Americans learn most of what we think we know about poverty. 

And that take us to another difficult point in the conversation: the face of poverty, a face no one wants projected on themselves, their children, or their community.

In this country, poverty has been characterized and moralized. In a million ways we have all been messaged that people are poor because they are lazy, unintelligent, morally corrupt, deficient in some way and that the appropriate response is blame or pity.

There is within this messaging a long history of turning images that were intended to portray the personhood, dignity, and, yes, suffering of people whose lives are contextualized by financial poverty into degradations of those very people.

Dorothea Lang, Doris Ullman, Walker Evans, and the photographers of the War on Poverty intended to garner awareness and support to end poverty. They knew that putting a face on poverty humanizes its realities in ways that statistics and facts do not.

In many ways they succeeded. Social security, federal food assistance, the mortgage deduction—things that give lots of people more security—can be traced, in part, to the fact that many Americans saw humanity—saw themselves—in the portraits. But that doesn’t change the fact that these photos, and others far less sensitive, have been used to subject and demean people.

The complex legacies of iconic 20th Century photographs of American poverty—largely white, largely rural—remain. They sit alongside far more powerful messaging about poverty in mass media. Representations, especially in movies and television, have—by factors disproportionate to any reality—portrayed people who are poor as people of color. The messages aren’t very complex. As Canada bluntly stated in his Berea talk: poverty in America has been colorized.

Poverty affects all racial/ethnic groups in the U.S and is growing among all groups. Larger numbers of white children are poor; much larger percentages of African-American, American Indian, and Latino children are poor. Stereotyping and the racial subtext of poverty reinforce misinformation and complicate the conversation. The inequality playbook has many tactics to block common cause.

So the work of Promise Neighborhood to talk straightforwardly about poverty in a way that casts a human face, a child’s face (even if the face is not the face of any particular Neighborhood child), as a reason people who aren’t poor could care is important albeit risky business. Finding ways to talk that don’t activate stereotypes and rain down stigma on kids and communities is path-clearing work not for the faint hearted.

There are other challenges as well. For the first time in history, the United States has the ability to collect huge amounts of computerized, searchable data on our kids, much of it in school. This academic data can be a real boon to teachers because knowing exactly where an individual child is having trouble makes it much easier to target instruction and supplemental supports to that student, helping the student excel quickly.

But who’s to say what will happen with that data in the future, how private it will be, how it will be used or misused. Doing this work requires a tremendous amount of data collection and management, data that’s needed for making decisions and targeting resources, data that will be used to demonstrate what outcomes result from significant investments in children born to families with limited financial resources.

It’s a lot of pressure on the data. The questions need to be the right questions, the measures the most reflective. And once the data is generated, there are challenges getting people to respect its findings. Belief can be stubbornly resistant to evidence.

And there other tight wires. The sciences of brain development, nutrition, the psychology of stimulation and nurture, the physiology of stress are helping to build the case that investment in supports to optimize children’s development is both protective and generative for body and brain. But we have to be careful that advocacy for these investments are not co-opted into arguments to write off kids, and the adults they become, who have not yet been fortunate enough to get all that is optimal.

We have to be equally thoughtful about using the word “generational” as a modifier for the word “poverty.” When the term generational poverty is used to denote the economic, educational, and social structures that decrease economic opportunity and mobility, it can be a useful construct. When it implies that poverty is inherited like an intractable gene, it’s a mean and dangerous lie.

We would do well to remember that a sizeable percentage of Americans who are doing financially well today had grandparents who were poor. The vast majority moved into financial security, not by an enormously lucky break or gargantuan personal effort, but because they lived in a place with good schools, decent available work with wages high enough to free some human and capital resources for the kids, and affordable college. These now middle-class families are the generational beneficiaries of public and social investments that make a difference.

And that brings us back to policy and where we make our public and social investments. We have to talk about it, about poverty, about what we are going to do about it. The conversation must include people who live in and with poverty everyday. Promise Neighborhood is an important part of that conversation with a lot to say about what it means to invest in kids and communities. 


Read more:

National Poverty Center at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan

“Harder for Americans to Rise from Lower Rungs”


Read more from the December 2013 Rural Policy Matters.