Talking FROM Poverty, Not About Poverty

Let’s talk about the war on poverty.  Some of you remember the Johnson administration.  That’s when we went to war with poverty.

We are war weary at this point.

And as we are weary, we are, as would stand to reason after 50 long years, bitter with this pernicious, pervasive enemy.  Over time poverty, the enemy, evolved, or perhaps the better choice would be devolved, into something more personal, more tangible.   Poverty required a representative, a face.  Enter the poor.  We are increasingly tired of, weary of, and disdainful of the poor.

The poor are the enemy.  They are, to borrow a phrase from a weeklong news special on one of the ratings-seeking major news outlets, on the wrong side of: ENTITLEMENT NATION:  MAKERS VS. TAKERS.

Takers?  Entitlement?  Forget the least of these; we’re talking about thieves.  Takers.  And not just any takers.  Entitled takers.  Arrogant takers.  These stories wouldn’t run as a weeklong feature if they didn’t drive ratings.  So someone is watching and listening.  Is that someone you?  Are you doing your part to stoke the news ratings, to encourage the rhetoric?  If not you, then who?

Them.  I’m sure it’s them.  You know them.  They are the folks who rallied to eliminate emergency unemployment benefits in our state. Our state was the only state in the nation eligible for emergency benefits which said: No, Thank You.  We had more people unemployed in Gaston County than we had jobs available in North Carolina.  Let me type that again:  We had more people unemployed in Gaston County than we had jobs available in North Carolina. That’s North Carolina.  The state.   Vinegar sauce to   tomato sauce.  Manteo to Murphy.  Abowt to about.  The whole thing.  Why?  We did it because these takers don’t want to work.  These takers want to be poor.  They’re takers.  Takers, well, they take.  It’s just what they do.

The most immediate route to poverty is total loss of income.  Eliminating the unemployment income source pushed more people into the role of taker.  Some of them will be long term takers.  They are children growing up in poverty.  Taker children end up, all too often, with a condition known as Taker Brain.  (The scientific term is Poverty Brain.)  Taker Brain means less gray matter.  Less gray matter means a lessened ability to learn, to be prepared for kindergarten, to function socially.  Taker parents bring taker children into a world where:

  • Children receive less cognitive stimulation: less reading to them, talking to them, playing with them, engaging them, encouraging them. This stuff matters. It matters more than I could ever say.
  • They live in neighborhoods with more environmental risks. Lead paint, crowded and noisy living conditions, high crime, violence; all of these are more common in taker neighborhoods. None of them are beneficial to children.
  • Parents who are more likely to be involved in domestic violence and ongoing conflict. Stressed parents in a violent home. Add a crying child. Do the math.

Taker Children still grow up.  And they typically keep right on taking.

A taker.  As in taking what is not yours, taking what is mine.  As in being a drag on making.  As in being less, wrong, below the grade.  A failure.  A thief.  Takers are lazy.  Takers won’t work.  Takers enjoy taking.

When you frame the discussion of poverty this way, you do some amazing things.  You take any dignity, any honor, and sense of value from the poor.  You dehumanize the poor.   And then the poor don’t matter.

No happy ending here.  I don’t have a solution to poverty.  You don’t either.  No one does.

I do know this Maker/Taker distraction creates barriers for compassion, respect, graciousness, and, worst of all, understanding.  Let’s not talk about programs, benefits and what you read on the internet, and hear on the television for a moment.  We don’t understand poverty.  We don’t understand the poor.  We can’t.  We aren’t in poverty.  We aren’t poor.  We don’t live in that world.  Until we spend time, human to human, with someone who is poor, and we listen, we never will understand.

How do we create an environment where this is possible?     One of the most promising practices to meet this end is a community engagement strategy known as Circles.  Are you familiar?  Google Circles USA.  Have a look.  And watch this space.  You’re going to hear more about this soon.

James Burgess                                                                                                                            Community Impact Director                                                                                                                United Way of Gaston County


2 thoughts on “Talking FROM Poverty, Not About Poverty

  1. Janice Holly Booth

    James, your observation that we cannot understand poverty because we are not in poverty ourselves reminds me of the day I came to think about poverty in a new light. For a leadership class I was taking, all 35 of us participated in a day-long “poverty simulation,” sponsored by Crisis Assistance Ministry in Charlotte. We were all given a backstory, some bus passes, a few dollars, and our family narrative. My “family” consisted of a recently out-of-work husband, a pregnant 16-year-old daughter, and a son. I had a job at a bank, but it barely covered expenses. Then one of our cars broke down — we had no money to fix it — and I had to start taking the bus so my “husband” could take our “daughter” to her pre-natal check-ups, go on job interviews, take care of the grocery shopping, etc. After a few incidents of being late because of the bus, I was told by my employer I’d be fired. Which I was. And boom, there we were, a formerly self-sufficient family of four reduced to accepting welfare. What really stayed with me though was how impossible it seemed to get out of that whirling vortex of poverty once inside it. The disdain of people toward those needing financial and other assistance was palpable, and dehumanizing. I have never forgotten the experience (and hope to never have it again) but it certainly changed my mind about people and poverty, or at least opened my mind substantially. We were told, at the conclusion of the poverty simulation, that one of the best ways to help individually is not to give advice or even money, but to give friendship. Befriend someone who is in poverty. Spend time with them and understand their world.

  2. Debbie Dupree

    This is heartwarming and motivating to say the least. Thank you for contributing through your thought provoking words.


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