The Challenges of Poverty


Salon has posted a couple of articles recently that might surprise you. They surprised me. And being the good little bleeding heart that I am, I don’t know how to think about or respond to them. I thought I would ask you all for your thoughts.

The most recent of the two is by Debra Dickerson, an African American writer who grew up in the inner city and managed to escape poverty and attend Harvard. Honestly, I don’t think she’s a very good writer, but she always writes on topics that interest me so I end up reading her stuff anyway. Some readers feel that she’s too hard on her people, so to speak. Anyway, the article is about some Katrina evacuees who were placed in the house next door to hers for a little over a year. It’s a parade of horribles at the center of which is a vacuous, slack-jawed mother and the seven kids she doesn’t bother to parent and four absent fathers (who aren’t mentioned in the story, but I thought I’d mention them here). I read the story with shock and horror, trying to imagine what I would do if I was in Dickerson’s situation.

The other article was written by a heartbroken mother who adopted a nine-year-old boy from poverty, gave him a solid middle-class life with all the opportunities that entails, and for her efforts has had to watch him throw his life away without meaningful employment, siring children with a woman just as unmotivated as he is, and is now wondering what her role should be in his life and the lives of her grandchildren.

Now, not that I have to say this with this crowd, but this is decidedly not about race. I have some trailer-dwelling relatives of relatives in backwoods Mississippi that could probably put some of the folks in these stories to shame. But I thought I’d stick in the disclaimer since the main characters in these two particular stories are people of color. Nor is completely about class — we have all known people of limited means who are clean, courteous, and responsible.

But the fact remains that what’s described in these stories is what is so challenging about poverty. That there are people who perhaps can’t be helped, that it can be too late to make changes. It makes you understand, for a split second, why conservatives have such a negative view of human nature, why they think the poor are scum who deserve their lot. It’s a helpless feeling to read about this, and recognize the tendencies being described, and to have no understanding at all of that level of dysfunction. And to see myself, as I prepare to have my own family, sneer at and disapprove of (internally, of course) those I see every day who don’t “deserve” to have children, who can’t do as good a job as I can and therefore should be somehow prevented from reproducing. This level of judgment disturbs me, but at the same time everything I read supports the view that children of people like me are better off in every conceivable way, while those of others languish in squalor with poor nutrition and parental neglect. It seems criminal, sometimes. Is there anything to be done about it, or is it the price of living in a democracy? (I was going to link to a NY Times Magazine article from a few weeks ago that was about schools that help disadvantaged kids succeed, but it’s too old and is now in the archives — anyway, it was interesting because it concluded that disparities start very early and cascade over time, and have much to do with parenting styles and parents’ vocabularies).

The scene that stood out to me in the Dickerson article was when the youngest two children demanded to be mothered, begging with their eyes for her to put sunscreen on them. It reminded me what a goddamn shame it is that so many kids never have a chance because of their crappy parents (who were once the children of crappy parents themselves, most likely), and made me wonder when exactly is the point at which those children become the adults of which I (internally) disapprove. And if is there any way for society to intervene.

It is taboo to say these things, especially for someone whose values are what mine are. And I know that to notice the dynamics that the writers above discuss in their essays does not inexorably lead to the conclusion that everyone gets what they deserve and all of the policy preferences that go along with that. The question is, though, where do these observations lead for people whose first impulse is to have compassion? How can we sit idly by and let the cycle continue? The charter schools described in the NY Times Magazine article seem like a good place to start, but as the writer of that article pointed out, the kids whose parents sign them up for a charter school with a rigorous program are already way ahead of the game. What do we do about parents like “Mary Smith” in the Dickerson essay except try to keep them and their children far away from us?


15 Responses to “The Challenges of Poverty”

  1. Joe Longhorn Says:

    Those articles are both heart-breaking and infuriating at the same time. The second article hits very close to home for me. Ultimately, it’s all very discouraging.

    You see, Sandi, not all of us conservatives turn a blind eye and “think the poor are scum who deserve their lot.”

    The question is: “How much help is enough?”

    Don’t you think we do pretty well in a country of 300 million people when only 10-15 percent of the population struggle in poverty? Especially when many of those that struggle in poverty have a standard of living that is far above what those in poverty experienced just 50 years ago?

    These two articles go to show that even those with the most compassionate hearts become jaded after their efforts to help make little to no difference.

  2. Sandi Says:

    I think my beef (to the extent I have one) is more with the fact that children don’t choose what family they’re born into, and then by virtue of that are given more or fewer opportunities and chances to lead successful lives. I think some children are very resilient and can rise above anything thrown their way. Others are more fragile and become discouraged and despondent more easily. I can’t say which type I would be, honestly. Maybe if I had grown up with a parent like that I wouldn’t give a damn about anything either. I think it would help everyone in our society if no one lived like the two articles describe. I don’t know how to get there, but I also don’t think that we’re doing so well because only 10-15% (assuming that’s an accurate figure) are impoverished by American standards, which admittedly are high given the situation in other parts of the world.

    My thought is that solutions to problems like this are best effected at a systemic rather than an individual level. But, this problem is particularly challenging because it is rooted in family dynamics and how one is raised, which our government is relatively laissez faire about (although less so than was once the case, thank goodness). I don’t even know that being laissez faire is the wrong policy approach. I took a sociology class when I was in high school and the teacher, the mother of a friend of mine, said she really thought that they (the government) should license parents. On the one hand, it makes a lot of sense — you have to have a license to hunt, or to drive, but not to do the most important job in the world. On the other hand, at present there doesn’t seem to be any practical way to control reproduction that isn’t rife with potential abuses and other issues. Sort of like freedom of speech, it seems to be a necessary price of living in a democracy that we allow people to make bad choices, even very bad ones that hurt people and ruin lives.

    On the other hand, I guess what I wanted to ask in my post is, how do we deal with the fact that these are difficult problems and that some people seem impervious to help, without throwing up our hands and thinking that there is nothing that can be done and so poverty is a necessary evil?

  3. Sandi Says:

    hey, this is a really good topic! where the heck is everybody??

  4. Al Sturgeon Says:

    I’ve had the flu since Monday morning, and I’m up only because I can’t stand to be in bed any longer. So my brain isn’t firing on all pistons right now…

    It is a great topic & worthy of much discussion.

    I will say that the way I look at deadbeat adults changed a bit after working at a “children’s home” and parenting teenage girls who were abused/neglected/etc. When I saw the difficulties that come with such horrible childhoods – and how few truly overcome them even when “rescued” from them – it made me realize how come some people turn out like they do.

    I’m more sad and less infuriated at adults than I used to be.

    There comes a time for everyone to grow up I know, but given the entire set of circumstances, its more amazing how many DO overcome than vice-versa.

    And to grossly simplify a response to Joe & Sandi’s comments, as long as there’s a child in poverty (or abused or neglected or endangered), we owe it to him/her (and the world) not to become jaded or throw up our hands and give up.

    * Volunteer w/Boys/Girls Clubs
    * Invest in Habitat for Humanity
    * Volunteer/work in public schools
    * Become a foster parent/adopt

    As the articles Sandi cited demonstrate, all the above ideas and more will have a failure rate. My answer is So what? Watch “Schindler’s List” & frame the classic quote at the end…

    (If none of this makes sense, remember I still have the flu…)

  5. Unicorn Says:


    You bring us a very complex and disturbing issue.

    I worked for 23 years before retirement for a church-related Social Service Agency in South Mississippi. We worked with elderly, low-income, disadvantaged persons. We found it helpful to distinguish between those who were “poor” and those “in poverty.”

    Being “poor” meant you didn’t have enough money for all you wanted (or needed). Though you might not know the word, you prioritized. You paid rent so you wouldn’t get evicted; paid utilities so they wouldn’t turn them off; You bought groceries after that. If you were short, you ate bread, watered down soup, or beans and rice (instead of beef). You had fresh vegetables and salad if you happened to have a garden out back. You didn’t go to the dentist just because you had a toothache, or to the doctor because you had a stomach ache (those were luxuries).

    Most important of all, you believed that if you worked hard, saved a little money and got an education for your children, they could get a better job and have a better life than you had.

    If you were “in poverty” you didn’t believe any of that. You believed that if you got some money, somebody would just steal it. If you got a job, you’d get laid off at the worst possible time. If you did manage to save a little money, somebody would get hurt and you’d have to go to the Emergency Room, or the car would break down – so why try? In short, being “in poverty” meant being without hope. It meant being in a hopeless situation.

    We found that it was discouraging to work with the poor, because we didn’t have the resources to really help them. We found it was discouraging to work with those in poverty, because even if we had limitless resources, we didn’t know what to do.

    And then there was Reed Robbins, whom I remember from when I was about 10 or 12 years old in the late 1940’s. Reed lived with his mother in a shack by the pond up the road from our farm. Reed, probably in his 30’s, was what in those unenlightened days we called “retarded and crippled”.

    He spent his days fashioning sling shots made of a fork from a tree branch, strips of rubber cut from inner tubes and a piece of discarded shoe leather. These were bound together with fishing twine. Reed not only made impressive sling shots, he could use them with phenomenal accuracy. He was able to knock a dove out of a tree at 50 feet, or even kill jack rabbits and cotton tails with them. These wound up on their table at mealtime.

    What’s my point? That there are Reed Robbins all over, whose physical and mental limitations will never allow them to be the equals of the more gifted in society. In a day when hunting doves and rabbits is not a valued skill, what is such a person to do?

    So, yes, “The Poor will always be with us.”
    But, they aren’t all “Smiths” or ungrateful adoptees.

    But so will the Rich always be with us.
    Some greedy; and some generous.
    Some hard-hearted; and some compassionate.
    Some dull; and some fascinating.
    Some selfish; and some altruistic.

    So, the best we can do is NOT put them all in the same box.

    Oooooops! Looks like I just about started preachin’. Sorry.

  6. Joe Longhorn Says:

    I agree with both Al and Sandi that we can never give up on trying to help. I just don’t know that helping more is the right answer. I just think that the more help we give, the more it is expected. For those that truly want to break the cycle, there is a lot of help available.

    The biggest struggle for me is dealing with the sense of entitlement that is palpable among those on government (or any other type) assistance. As both articles illustrate, for a lot of people, no amount of assistance is ever enough. They feel that they deserve more. I just don’t get it.

    On the other hand, there is no feeling in the world like helping someone that is truly appreciative and knowing that it made a difference in their lives.

    I know that our help shouldn’t depend on whether we expect the receiver to express a sense of entitlement or of gratitude. I just struggle with living by that standard.

  7. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Huzzah! to Al and unicorn’s comments.

    As the articles Sandi cited demonstrate, all the above ideas and more will have a failure rate.

    Indeed. The key, I think, is to accept that fact up front. To go into helping the poor having already accepted that some people (including some poor ones) are ungrateful louts, that some people (including some poor ones) are just no damn good, and your help isn’t going to change that.

    Helping the poor has to be something you do not because of who the poor are, but because of who you are. You have little or no control over other people’s attitudes and actions. You control only your own. If you decide that helping the poor is something you do, do it. Let the source of your satisfaction be living up to your own ideals and commitments, and how other people react to what you do will be less important. (Which doesn’t mean, btw, that you can’t direct your efforts to where experience tells you they’ll do the most good.) Be workmanlike in your efforts, and take pleasure from the work itself.

    In a day when hunting doves and rabbits is not a valued skill, what is such a person to do?

    Precisely. Many people who live in generational poverty (the “in poverty” group you referred to) have no marketable skills and no resources for learning one. (Including not knowing somebody — and that’s the middle-class ne’er-do-well’s best friend, “knowing somebody” — who is in a position to give them a break and a chance.) I’ve been reading a biography of Andrew Carnegie, lately, and America just doesn’t function the way it did when Carnegie took himself from dirt poor Scottish immigrant boy to the richest man in the world.

    And hope. Yes. People who live in generational poverty have been robbed of all hope that their lives or their children’s lives will ever get any better. Why use what little money you’ve got to play the lottery, rather than investing it in something to help you or your kids get a better job? Because in the lottery, you’ve got at least some hope of succeeding. You’re on equal footing with everybody else. Unlike the job market. Or the college admissions market. Or…

    We laugh at him because he’s become a corrupt parody of himself, but Jesse Jackson didn’t start shouting, “Keep hope alive! Keep hope alive! Keep hope alive!” at the end of his speeches for no reason.

  8. Whitney Says:

    It’s a great topic, and thank you. I’m a fence-straddler here, but for the first time I agreed with your post almost entirely. (And, hey, I’m a conservative.)

    I hate having the feelings you described, because I know the feeling itself is just wrong. It’s a difficult, difficult thing to address. So far as what to do, I see Joe & JU’s points extremely clearly.

    Unfortunately, I am steeped in the middle of huge project and finals, so I don’t have the mental energy to conjure up something understandable.
    If you all do gibberish–then you may understand what I’d mean. Therefore, I’ll leave this interesting conversation to the eloquent amongst us. 🙂

    Thank you, seriously, for such an important topic.

  9. Sandi Says:

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments. One thing that frustrates me is that the tendency to be a person with no hope and a sense of entitlement is largely cultivated within the family. (There are definitely exceptions, but in general people learn a lot about how to view the world from their parents). Thus, it seems in an abstract sense to be preventable. So to know what causes a lot of this and not be able to do anything about it (for civil liberties reasons I discussed in my first comment) is maddening. Seeing children neglected, abused, and taught destructive habits especially drives me nuts. I could go on and on about that. And a lot of that stuff happens because people become parents too young, without having put any thought into it, and/or by accident. Because it happens by accident, or because they are too young/immature, they don’t appreciate what a tremendous gift and responsibility it is and that another person’s life, happiness and future is literally in their hands. The consequences of doing a crappy job are (or at least can be) so grave, it just seems absurd that nothing can be done to intervene unless a child’s life is physically in danger.

    Of course sometimes even people who’ve had good parents can turn out rotten, so I guess it’s a crapshoot. I was going to say something about that earlier, that there are definitely middle and upper class folks who have the same sense of entitlement and lack of responsibility, but it tends to be concealed by the fact that they have greater resources for being bailed out or helped along.

    I don’t know where I’m going with this. I agree with Al and JU — and I always used to say when people would tell me that they didn’t give money to homeless people because they would just spend it on drugs or alcohol, that it didn’t matter what they did with the money because I had done a good thing by giving it — that what you do for people is a reflection on you and not on the results of your attempts to help. But I also understand getting frustrated with seeing your help wasted — I would have been livid if I had spent $20 on a jumbo size box of bandaids and then saw the kids next door waste them. So I guess I agree that channeling your compassion and desire to help into a program like Habitat or Boys & Girls Club is the way to go rather than trying to be charitable one on one if for no other reason than to keep the jadedness at bay.

  10. Terry Austin Says:

    In one of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite (and, of course, long since canceled) TV shows, two characters are discussing ways to help others. One guy notes that sometimes on his way to work (in NYC), he slips money to a homeless person. The other guy says, “Aren’t you worried they’ll just spend it on booze or drugs?”

    And the first guy says, “I hope they spend it on booze or drugs. It’s not like most of these guys are one hot meal from turning it around. They’ll be home soon enough. If they want to numb themselves until that happens, I’m OK with that.”

    (I paraphrased a lot there, BTW.)

    I had never thought about that before, but now I think about it a lot.

  11. Terry Austin Says:

    Because it was bugging me (and me only), I tracked down the exact quote, from “The Quality of Mercy at 29,000 Feet,” an episode of my favorite show, Sports Night. Here it is:

    Dan: Who do you give your money to?

    Isaac: I used to donate money to the Democratic Party.

    Dan: Not anymore?

    Isaac: Well, you get your heart broken enough times, you learn your lesson.

    Dan: Who do you give your money to now?

    Isaac: I give it here and there. There are plenty of good causes.

    Dan: That’s the problem.

    Isaac: Hmmm. Danny, every morning I leave an acre and a half of the most beautiful property in New Canaan. I get on a train and come to work in a 54-story glass highrise. In between, I step across bodies to get here. Twenty, thirty, fifty of ’em a day. So, as I’m stepping over them, I reach into my pocket and give ’em whatever I’ve got.

    Dan: You’re not afraid they’re gonna spend it on booze?

    Isaac: I’m hoping they’re gonna spend it on booze. Look, Danny, these people, most of them, it’s not like they’re one hot meal from turning it around. For most of them, the clock’s pretty much run out. They’ll be home soon enough. What’s wrong with giving ’em a little Novocain to get ’em through the night?

  12. Joe Longhorn Says:

    To quote our friend Pete:

    “That don’t make NO sense!”

  13. DeJon Redd Says:

    This topic of conversation always sets my mind to reeling. And I’ve gotta say I have great respect for this discussion in its entirety.

    While my words on the topic are embarrassingly uninformed, I must say something as to not be a lurker on such an important issue.

    Lately I’ve felt like my attitude towards the poor has haunted me at every turn. It represents a large part of why I’ve come to despise the moral stand of “church.” Our track record [chiefly my personal track record] is an abomination. It makes a mockery of our so-called faith, and causes me deep distress.

    What was so hard for me was dealing with this nameless, faceless group of people called the poor. I’m supposed to be a big fan of Jesus, and he recommends I should have a healthy amount of concern for “the poor.” Yet I couldn’t give you the name of anyone in their number. And to say that I was a friend to anyone one in poverty would be a lie.

    I’m ignorant, and that disgusts me. So that you don’t think I’m spitting in the wind, I’ll mention I’ve finally decided to get involved in a small way. But I’m still so new to the non-profit I’ve found; I don’t really consider myself useful there yet.

    A few books on the issue that I hope will reduce my ignorance:
    Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela Tag: The International Bestseller by Nelson Mandela – I’m 150 pages in to it (albeit more than 10 years too late), and I’m riveted…
    The Working Poor: Invisible in America by David K. Shipler
    The Color of Welfare: How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty by Jill Quadagno
    Principles of Social Justice by David Miller
    Rich Christians In An Age Of Hunger by Ronald J. Sider

    [Peace and hope to all you this holiday season!]

  14. Sandi Says:

    Dejon, I’m glad you brought up David Shipler’s book The Working Poor. I read it perhaps a year ago and thought he did a really good job addressing the same issues that I have brought up here. You saw in the stories that he recounted some of the dynamics that kept people poor: some of them were things that were outside people’s control, and sometimes you could fairly say that the people in his stories continued to contribute to their situation. It’s like when the deck is stacked against you, you just have less of a margin for error and normal human failings than people with greater resources. It’s the path of least resistance almost to just give up.

  15. Al Sturgeon Says:

    You’re a good man, DeJon Brown.

    If I may plan my own pity party (I’m in the mood), I feel as if you’re headed in the right direction & I’m headed the opposite way.

    I feel like I had the somewhat appropriate idealism once upon a time, but I’m gradually losing it to the comforts of suburbia. This is not a good feeling.

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