“Why are people poor?” I remember being asked this question ten years ago while at a training for a program I was a volunteering with. Back then, just out of college, I had little to no first hand knowledge or experiences with poverty in America and felt completely ill equipped to answer the question. The only poverty I knew was what I saw visiting India, where it seemed poverty was blamed mostly on systemic failure and karma. In America, it seemed like poverty was mostly blamed on the individual and their individual choices and behavior. In India, your caste had the power of determining your place in society, in American it seemed your race had similar effects.
Since first being asked that question ten years ago my own individual belief system about race and poverty has evolved. My work, my education and the relationships I have formed across race and class has helped me to understand the complexity of the underlying causes and effects of poverty. Yet, at the same time I am surprised at how little the general American population’s belief system has evolved over a much longer period of time.
In America the general belief system about race and poverty continues to be built upon the foundation that poor people are poor simply because of their choices and behavior. A 2007 Pew Research Center poll reported that an overwhelming percentage of Americans believe that people who are poor do not succeed because of their own shortcomings, only 19% emphasized the roll of discrimination or other structural and economic forces that go beyond the control of any one individual.
Which I guess I can understand since few themes are as powerful in the American psyche as that of individual responsibility. We treasure notions of individual accomplishment, meritocracy and equal opportunity, believing that these values translate directly into the daily experience of all Americans. This overly individualistic approach to race and poverty fits nicely within our overall individualistic approach to many life issues. In our imperfect world with its many inequities, however, these values inevitably often lead to different outcomes for different individuals.
I think the conversation is much more complicated and needs to include issues like racism, segregation, housing, education, transportation and economic forces to name just a few. Each of these areas, I would argue, has also played a significant role in creating and sustaining poverty in America.
A recent report from the Aspen Institute asked two questions of its’ audience:
I would argue it is because we have in our country a belief system that justifies inequity in America.
john powell describes it this way:
"We have a storyline that allows us to justify the inequality that exists in our country. We tell each other stories about the culture of poverty and the lack of personal and collective responsibility in racially marginalized communites. We talk about segregation from opportunity in terms of choice, of people just wanting to live with their own. We become armchair sociologists, uninterested and unconcerned with the facts and even less aware of institutional arrangements and the work they do in creating and perpetuating poverty in America."
And the most troubling fact for me is the reality that we will never be able to solve the problem of poverty if we are unable to define the problem accurately. We have to find ways to open up dialogue that will allow us to better understand the complexity and interconnectedness surrounding issues of poverty.
Got any ideas on how to make this happen?