Sunday, November 18, 2012

Reflections on Poverty

Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world. (James 1.27).
This weekend, my six Literature students are writing reflections on a recent service project we completed as a class in the downtown area. I decided to actually do some of the same work I assign my students and join them. My class completed two service projects (three students went to one; three to the other): I want to write about my girls' trip downtown to visit the Women's Life Center*, an education and mentoring program for mothers in poverty with young children.

As Women's Life focuses on long-term mentoring, my students and I traded hands-on service (such as cooking something or cleaning something) for a more formal orientation to the principles that make the center work. The director walked us through Dr. Ruby Payne's analysis of the resources needed to get out of poverty, then through the curriculum materials that clients complete with their mentors. After that, my students got to meet several of the clients for a short Q&A session on life in poverty and their time with Women's Life. Finally, they had the chance to talk with the center volunteers directly .

Tomorrow, I'll receive my students' reflections and find out what they learned and how they were changed or challenged by their visit. Till then, here is what I took away from the experience.

Americans in general and evangelicals in particular tend to approach poverty with broad, simple solutions: Get the poor off welfare. Get them jobs. If they don't want to work at a job, they don't get out of poverty. Simple as that. So widespread is this belief that the volunteers, Christian women active in their churches, confessed to this attitude when they started: the idea that the primary reason for poverty is bad decisions about jobs, family and money, that the primary fix for poverty is good decisions. Through the grace of God, the volunteers discovered that this solution was, in the words of H.L. Mencken, "clear, simple and wrong".

Personally, I felt that the visit corrected oversimplified thought about poverty (including my own) in two key ways:

Poverty is more complex than we think.
During the orientation, I asked the director about whether the clients and / or their husbands (partners) are able to find and keep work in the area. Turns out, that's a hard question to answer.

The first answer is, "Yes". My city has a relatively low unemployment rate (unfortunately, most employment is in difficult retail jobs but still - employment!), and managers will hire people that want to work.

Then the director qualified that "Yes" in detail. To someone in poverty, working a steady job takes a heavy toll on her family and on her finances. A job, of course, means that employees need to get themselves to work on a regular basis at the scheduled time. Kids spent little time with their working parents, probably less time than the kids of middle class parents. In the middle class, parents can afford to leave their children at daycare or at a neighbours' house, then pick them up at the end of the day. In poverty, that doesn't happen. Daycare is too expensive, and neighbours, the director told us, may be untrustworthy or abusive. One parent resorted to driving her kids out of the city every time she worked; they spent several nights a week at their grandparents' homes and very little time with their mom. Interestingly, jobs also take a toll on a family's finances. If parents try to pay for babysitting, that eats up money. Work uniforms may eat up money. What eats up the most money is, of course, the cost of fuel commuting to a job (or leaving the kids with family). A $7 / hour entry-level job may not make the costs of commuting feasible. In fact, one of the students in our group recently had a co-worker turn in her notice because working actually cost more money than not working.

I realize that there are readers who believe the $7 / hour jobs are not designed for parents to make a living on, or that the poor should simply go out and get higher-paying jobs. Unfortunately, the very poor do not have the education to get a better job, nor do they have the time or money to get the education. Without a job and / or daycare, they have no access to education. Without education, they have no access to a better job or daycare. Poverty, unlike people imagine it sometimes, is not a one-way route from "lazy" to "no money". For many people, it is actually a vicious self-sustaining cycle that lasts for generations.

In light of this situation, welfare looks pretty appealing. People (including politicians) react to the cycle of poverty by thinking, "Oh, those poor people! We need to give them something!!" As the director explained, however, this solution is also "clear, simple and wrong". The poor desperately need a sense of individual power and responsibility to escape the cycle: Because their circumstances have controlled them for so long, they need to know that they have some control over their circumstances in order to improve their situation. Short-term handouts are often much needed: To the woman who finds herself unexpectedly homeless, to the people whose homes were burned to the ground or swept away in Sandy, immediate handouts are a lifesaver and a sign of God's love and compassion. Yet long-term handouts rob a person of a sense of power. The director at Women's Life stressed that the center tries very hard to avoid this problem. Women are only allowed to purchase items from the store (stocked with donated baby clothes, toys and women's clothes) with Mommybucks that they earn from attending mentorship programs regularly and taking other steps to improve their situation; they cannot use real money. The point is that because the Mommybucks are earned, the women feel as though they have earned the purchase and thus feel more capable of long-term, lasting change in their lives.

Arguments both for and against welfare, both condemning and excusing those in poverty, abound in our culture (especially a few weeks ago during the recent election). My visit to Women's Life provided a healthy dose of caution against buying in completely to any one of those arguments: The situation is far more complex than political or social argument would have us believe, and we must be wary of simple solutions. A dragon does not die because insults are hurled at it.

Solving poverty is about short-term goals, not long-term ones.
In spite of the warning against simple solutions, I still expected the Women's Life volunteers to offer a well-argued solution for the situation in which the clients found themselves. After all, why bother helping if nothing is ever going to change? If we know what's wrong, can't we do something about it? I wanted to hear a clear plan outlined to solve poverty, an idea or an outline or a project to start helping anyone who lacked the resources necessary to succeed financially. I wanted to hear the women at the shelter speak of progressing out of poverty towards the middle class.

I didn't hear that.

Yes, one woman wanted her son to go to college, which seems like a fairly middle-class move to make. However, she wanted him to graduate from high school first. Another simply wanted her children to have a happy, healthy childhood, because she herself didn't: Her husband was working at a local fast food chain; she was caring for her babies, and she was the happiest she'd ever been in life. A third simply wanted to live and be around for her children well into their adulthood, because her own parents had died early. A fourth wanted a crib for her new baby.

Given the complexity of poverty and the often damaging assumptions we make about how to fix it, I think we do wrong if we approach poverty (or really, any social ill) as essentially a problem to be fixed. Sometimes, life does not need an academic solution. As a dramatic academic, this is hard for me to say: I see a problem, and I want to quantify it, describe it, analyze it, evaluate it, solve it. I want to study it. But how do you quantify the progress out of poverty when there's one woman sitting in front of you with her baby, talking about how happy she is? How do you quantify the stories that are told?

As believers, "the desire to give is blessed". Academic solutions, however, do not make good gifts. Perhaps this is partly what James meant when he warned us against wishing that people "be warm and well-fed" but doing nothing practical to help. To truly give (whether the need be financial or emotional, or the needy one be in poverty or wealth), we must put away the desire to quantify and control experience. Instead of focusing on theories, we need to focus on people: to see that individuals are indeed warm and well-fed, that that they are loved.

T.S. Eliot warned his praying readers,
"You are not here to verify / Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity, Or carry report. You are here to kneel/  Where prayer has been valid."
Here, much the same warning applies. A worshiper cannot come to God as to a Theorem, expecting to "instruct himself" on the nature of the divine or "inform curiosity" about religious experience. Just so, we cannot come to social work expecting to "carry report" and publish papers or to "verify" the truth or error of claims about poverty. The best work is done when we forget the reports and verfications and theories (or at least push them to the back of our mind, to be studied later) and focus on people.

In Conclusion
Last spring, my students were assigned the short story, "A Wall of Fire Rising". In that story, a Haitian man was confronted with the reality of the social cage that his poverty placed him in: In spite of his intelligence, in spite of his ambition, the only job available to him was temp work cleaning toilets. In spite of his young son's intelligence, his son would be lucky to end up with a job in the sugar mill. Guy ends the story by stealing the mill owner's balloon, a symbol of freedom and fulfillment, and then falling (or jumping?) from the balloon to his death.

Commonly, students react to this story by condemning Guy, the Haitian. "He should have been content," they say. "He had a wife and a son." "They had sugar water and bananas to eat!" "At least he could clean toilets every now and then," they say, as if that was the fulfillment of all Guy's ambition.

Let me be clear: I am not condoning suicide in any circumstances. Yet my students' responses (and other students; a quick Google search shows that theirs is not a limited problem) lacked something: A sense of compassion or understanding for the difficulties that drove Guy to make the decisions he did. As a student this semester pointed out, an interpreter is on dangerous ground if she tries to condemn (or vindicate) Guy without having walked in his shoes; she has never had to confront his reality of a life of poverty. To recommend with ease that Guy simply "be content", from someone who has no personal experience of the challenges of poverty, is to recommend a solution which is "simple and wrong". 

T.S. Eliot writes that "As we grow older / The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated". In fact, recognizing complications in one's understanding of life (the 'pattern' that Eliot refers to) is in fact not only a product of growth but also a mark of it. Let me illustrate with a lighthearted example: A child who dislikes vegetables may not believe that anyone could possibly like lima beans or green peppers or tomatoes. As an adult, she may still dislike lima beans, but she will understand that other people love them because she has met people that do. The "pattern" of her life has been complicated, to a good end.

Apply that now to the literature of diversity: A child reads Guy's decision to steal the balloon and jump as inconceivable, utterly wrong. An adult may still recognize that his is the wrong decision, but because she has more experience with people in depression or people trapped by poverty or other social circumstances, she realizes how very troubling the circumstances are that led up to that decision. To put this in biblical language, St. Paul warns us that as adults we must "put away childish things" (I Cor. 13.11), among them a belief that we always have a perfect answer for a difficult problem.

Visiting Women's Life challenged me to put away simple answers. As a philosophical person myself, theories and argument are clear and important, but I was reminded that people are more important and that sometimes (not always) the theories do not matter. I hope that my students also learned that, in some way, "the world is stranger" and "the pattern more complicated" than they first believed.


*Women's Life: Not its real name; changed to protect privacy

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