On Sunday, I wrote about deep poverty, and I’ve spent considerable time on the internet looking at articles and books about poverty and its causes. When asked, most people cite drug abuse as the number one cause of poverty. The second most cited answer was medical bills. Only listed as third was the lack of full time good paying jobs. (http://www.npr.org/programs/specials/poll/poverty/).
As a former director of an ecumenical social service organization, I encountered poverty and deep poverty many times. Substance abuse was rampant in some of the people we met and served. Not so in others. Many families moved in and out of poverty for many reasons. Medical bills are certainly a contributing factor. Lack of economic opportunity was a great factor. Jobs for the unskilled were often temporary, part-time, low-paying work that was unstable. Taking care of basic needs and escaping the hopelessness of their situation were primary objectives of the families. Looking beyond that in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was impossible. Development of cultural capital and a sense of ability to function in the world were not considered.
I believe that our best hope of eradicating poverty is to work ceaselessly with children and young people. While we need to continue the care we give families, we must help our youngsters to dream not only of meeting basic needs for themselves but also to reach for those values higher on the Maslow scale. We must find ways to interest them in education, the arts, playing sports, and help them find the support they need to continue these activities – even when their families do not care or are unable to care.
I suspect that I grew up in poverty. My Mom worked as a clerk in a variety store and my Dad was the town drunk. We lived on the farm; so I never went hungry; we raised produce and preserved it for winter months. But, I do remember meatless days. Our heat was a wood stove in the kitchen although we had bottled gas for our cook stove. Our water came from a pump at the edge of the back porch, and our bathroom was an outhouse.
But, education was stressed. So was employment; I began working at the variety store as soon as I was old enough. After my father went away, we had valuable family time to read, to look at pictures of art, to listen to the radio, to sing, to talk about our extended family and play games together. Our school classes made many field trips to places of history and culture. I was rich in a cultural way. Poverty did not become a way of life in our family, and I suspect this cultural richness is one reason why we grew into the middle class.
Recently, one of my friends, Melissa, studying sociology of culture at Emory, talked with me about a paper she is writing. Her topic is: For middle class children, do having parents who were also raised middle class affect the odds that a child currently participates in high art activities? Her hypothesis using statistics from studies done in The Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) is that the longer a family stays in the middle class, the more likely the children are to accumulate cultural capital.
Drawing intuitively from this information and my own experience, I think that the longer a family stays out of poverty, the less likely they will fall back into poverty. The children are more likely to have their basic needs fulfilled and thus be able to concentrate more on education, job training, arts and other poverty-fighting cultural capital.
And, yes, I recognize that the polity of our country must change to include living incomes, affordable housing, and other structures to make the jump from poverty sustainable.