There is a lot of debate on this topic both in the field of Social Work and in the community. We are seeing the results of poverty in our neighborhoods in the City of Detroit, and others across the nation are seeing it in their communities as well. But there are also numerous stories of people who were raised poor but have achieved success. So, what is it about the people who advance out of a lower economic level and those who do not. Well, a big part of the answer lies in the difference between being poor and being in poverty.
Poor vs. Poverty – Being poor and being in poverty are two different things. Poor is an economic state, poverty is psychological, or in layman’s terms a “mindset.” Poverty is an overall state of economic dependency where one is dependent on a system of care for all or most areas of their life, often for more than one generation.
There is also another difference. Situational Poverty vs. Generation Poverty – Situational poverty is when a person experiences poverty because of a life changing event. Examples: divorce, illness, death in the family, unexpected loss of employment. Any of these life events can cause an individual or a family to endure a period of instability, homelessness, use of government assistance, etc. However, generational poverty is when a person was born into a family that has experienced poverty and its associated factors for more than one generation, and in a lot of cases, for multiple generations.
These are some of the factors associated with generational poverty:
- Multiple episodes of homelessness
- Economic dependency
- Low education levels
- Low quality education and childcare
- Low employability skills
- Low or no network of support
- High levels of single parent households, mostly with multiple fathers
- High levels of health issues
- High incarceration rates
- High infant mortality rates
- High levels of substance use such as tobacco, marijuana, alcohol, and street drugs
Now let me tell you one of the differences in families who are poor but not necessarily in poverty. They have a different standard of life for themselves and their children. There is a focus on morals, standards, hard work, education, and sometimes religion.
Am I saying that people in poverty have no morals? ABSOLUTELY NOT. And this is why people are so afraid of discussing this topic because if you discuss the associated behaviors and patterns then critics will immediately say that you are blaming the victim and villainizing the poor. However, behind closed doors so many talk about the effects that we see in our communities and discuss the associated behaviors. Well, I believe no wound can heal until you remove the bandage, treat the injury and give it air.
So it is not that people in poverty do not have morals, etc. it is that more often than not they were not taught certain values. A PERSON DOESN’T KNOW WHAT THEY HAVE NEVER BEEN TAUGHT. Many people in poverty have had very negative experiences such as being raised in foster care, having parents who were incarcerated, having parents or a family pattern of substance abuse, experiencing domestic violence, and a host of other factors.
Am I saying that if you experience these things then you are in poverty and will stay in it? ABSOLUTELY NOT. However, if generational cycles are not broken then you will. And I have heard, read, studied and researched multiple stories of people who were raised in poverty and broke the cycle. And the running theme is learning a different set of rules and standards of life. Some may find it through education, some through marriage, some through a talent, some through a mentor, family member, or teacher who reaches them. But for all of them, they found a way out and learned to live a different way.
We need to stop pretending that living this way is okay out of fear of looking bad and learn how to speak the truth IN LOVE.
One of the debates surrounding the social issue of poverty is who caused this problem? Some say the government; some say it is due to individual responsibility. As with most debates I see the situation from both angles and know that this complex problem is a combination of BOTH institutional racism and individual responsibility. I will not go into the long history of institutional racism, although I have written reports on the matter, and that is at least a 20-page report! But I will say that institutional racism is REAL and still in effect TODAY, and our systems of care for those in need are BROKEN. IT DIDN’T BEGIN OUR FAULT, BUT IT HAS BECOME OUR FAULT. And now WE have to identify the solution. Part of my purpose is to help INDIVIDUALS to find ways to break the cycle of poverty in their life IF they CHOOSE to.
Spirituality – God has the power to change your life and has given you a measure of power over your own life.
Self-Determination – The determination of one’s own fate, free will, and choice.
Empowerment – To give (or take as far as I’m concerned) power, authority, INFORMATION, skills, education, HAVING DECISION MAKING POWER, having rights, and positive self-image.
When we tell our selves or those in our community that they have no power over their own lives and that no matter what they do “the system” or “the man” is going to keep them down, that my dear friends is so DIS-empowering. To break the cycle of poverty in your life, you need to first realize that you are in poverty, then you need to find your power. You need to know that despite the traps that the world has set for you, you can succeed. Greater is He that is within me, then he that is within the world. There will be changes that you will have to make, and change no matter what the subject is hard. But if YOU SO DESIRE you can change YOUR OWN LIFE.
For those whose purpose is to fight on the systems side for change, more power to you. We both have our place and I am not mad at your fight at all. However, my purpose is to help people find their individual power. And with us fighting on both sides – some for systems change, some for individual change – then we can WIN this WAR.
I have friends and family on both sides of the tracks. In addition, I am a Masters Level Social Worker who has researched and studied this social issue. And I can unequivocally tell you that there are very clear differences between being poor and being in poverty; and there also are very clear differences between living in a lower economic household and a middle class household. If your desire is to go from one level to another YOU CAN DO IT. I believe in you.