So as you know by now I am a Social Worker and my area of concentration is poverty. In addition, I have personal experience. I was not raised in poverty myself, however I was raised in an urban environment and there was poverty all around me. I had an interest in some of the things that I saw from an early age. I have always been a student of human behavior and find people very interesting. I have been exposed to different levels of economic status my entire life, and I still am to this very day. There are differences in lower economic level households and middle class households. Not only are there differences, there is also a division between the two, and misconceptions on either side. These differences are not limited to income and material possessions. Let’s examine the perceptions on both sides.
People NOT In Poverty
In my experience most people who are not in poverty do not understand the behavior and lifestyle of people in poverty. Big surprise right?! Of course they don’t. But the interesting thing is that they tend to think that people in poverty know the right things to do but are CHOOSING to live the way they do. Adding to this perception are stories about people who were raised in an impoverished environment and became a success, and/or people they know who had every opportunity given to them but did not live up to their potential because of negative choices. Are these stories true? Of course they are! I know of many stories like these too. However, they are the exceptions to the rule.
Our lives and our perception of the world are shaped by OUR own experiences. So, when a person was raised in an environment where they were taught certain values, mainly middle class values, they tend to think that is the norm. There are certain things that are considered the norm in American society. Things such as: parents love and protect their children, education is important, you have to work to provide for your family, stealing is wrong, lying is wrong, sex is private, marriage is the foundation of a family, etc. etc. So, when a person has been raised with these values, they think EVERYONE has been raised the same way. But that is not the case. That is not the case with the subject matter of poverty, and that is not the case in general.
I cannot tell you how many people I have heard say that people in poverty are just lazy, they know better, so what I have had hard times too but I don’t do that, well maybe they should stop having babies…………oh yeah, I’m going there! And I am not saying there is no truth to some of these opinions. But my point is that people who are not in poverty and/or were not raised in poverty think those in poverty have the same bricolage of information about life they do. They think they know better, but often times they do not. THEY DON’T KNOW THEY DON’T KNOW!
People IN Poverty
Now for the other side – people who are currently in or were raised in poverty. As discussed in my post, poor vs poverty, there are certain factors associated with living in poverty. I saw the effects in the neighborhood that I was raised in and I observe the quotidian activities of clients in my work as a social worker. Particularly in my work with homeless families it is very evident there are clear differences in values and lifestyle. Unfortunately, people who work in this industry see many negative family patterns. This is not in judgment; it is a fact. These patterns and behaviors make it evident they do not know what to do to become self-sufficient; and unfortunately not all of them want to be. Most of my clients do not have the most basic information nor skills needed to be a self-sufficient adult; particularly as it relates to education and career.
Education – Some families in poverty do not know how important an education is to financial stability, and/or they know it is important but it is not a priority to them, and/or they think only the rich or people who can “afford” it can obtain a college education. Sadly, this doesn’t just relate to higher education, many in this population do not even have a high school diploma.
Career – When I say career in this aspect I am referring to jobs and work ethic. Behaviors such as being late for work, leaving early, excessive call offs, no call no shows, having conflict with co-workers, and the ability to hold on to employment long term are common. The interesting thing is that they often do not know that the behaviors are not good.
Family Dynamics – I want to be very sensitive to the discussion of family dynamics as it relates to poverty. This is a complex subject and I don’t want anyone in this situation to be affronted. Some of the family dynamics they do not know are not good are having children by multiple fathers, continuing to have children when they are not in a position to provide for them, having a lot of “traffic” in their homes, and being involved in activities which produce negative consequences are just some examples.
I will give you a classic example. There are some people who are living in a homeless shelter and smoke marijuana on a daily basis. Do only poor people smoke marijuana, absolutely not! There are people in every economic level who smoke marijuana, it is a common substance used in our society. However, this is one of the times where there is a double standard. If you are living in a shelter with your children, you have no high school diploma, no skills, no job, and you have to get everything that you need from a program, resource, or facility, you have no business buying and smoking marijuana………and daily at that! This is one of those behaviors that I see which makes absolutely no sense what so ever. But to my point, THEY DON’T KNOW THAT IT DOES NOT MAKE SENSE! If this was how you were raised, and this is all you see in your environment, you think that it is normal.
In the field of Social Work there is now research that shows people who have experienced poverty over an extended amount of time have low executive function skills.
Executive Function – Executive functioning skills are the cognitive skills and processes related to attention control, impulse control, working memory, mental flexibility, and problem solving. They are skills necessary to control one’s behavior and make long term decisions. Persistent poverty and the associated trauma, and social bias can directly undermine brain development and the executive function skills needed for success.
So, when people on the outside think that families in poverty know what they should do but choose not to, they are often incorrect. They do not know what to do to lead a different life, and many times they do not know there IS a different way to live. They do not know they have options or what those options are. THEY DON’T KNOW THEY DON’T KNOW!
There are three important points I want to address concerning this topic. Being raised in poverty does not mean that you were or are what one would call “dirt poor.” It is not just about “things,” as a matter of fact some low income households have more “things” then a middle class household. Partly because material possessions hold a different value to them. Some of the family members may work. I have even seen families in poverty who receive disability benefits and food stamp benefits that amount to more than the income of most of us who work full time jobs. However, the differences lie in other areas such as being dependent on government entitlement programs, having children by multiple partners of which none are in the children’s lives, focus (or lack thereof) on education, not having their personal business in order such as valid identification, having home, car, and life insurance, and so on. So, there are people in poverty who actually have “nothing” but there are also people in poverty who have “material” possessions. Poverty is about economic dependency, a lack of resources, and a cycle of negative behaviors, not just money.
The second point is that just because a person is in poverty does not mean they do not have values, I cannot say this enough. There are many different values in our society depending on your family, neighborhood, race, region, education level, income level and so on. DIFFERENT, not better.
Finally, the third point is that just because a person is NOT in poverty, does not mean they DO have values. There are many people who come from middle class AND upper class households and there are/were atrocities going on in their homes. There are people in a mansion right now who are being molested by a family member, executives who are embezzling millions from companies, housewives who are being abused by husbands, and so on. Please know that I know this and that is actually another subject that I am passionate about – people who are considered “good” but really are not, and how people viewed as “bad” are often misunderstood and actually are the best people inside. There will be blog posts about that, TRUST ME!
So, in this discussion I am referring to economic stability and having a certain quality of life that is important in our society, “societal values” not “personal value.” ALL people have value and we are ALL loved by God.
And I love you too.