Editorial from the Executive Director Teresa Phillips

“Why educate people about poverty”

As I sat in a community response meeting the other day, I realized how truly disconnected we are socially and economically. I was trying to explain to a public official why a renter might not report their landlord for code violations or unfair practices. He did not seem to understand why the renter would have a reluctance; why they might have a fear of asking for help.

Simply stated, if a renter lives at the poverty level, they live where they can afford and that usually means everything is typically not up to snuff. This includes their ability to qualify for good housing due to their low income and most likely bad credit rating.

So it could mean if the renter starts talking to public officials, code inspectors might condemn the property, leaving the renter homeless. What’s worse, they might report the renter to Children’s Services which takes away their children for living in poor conditions. Yes, that has happened.

At the very least, the renter’s landlord won’t be happy and they will be on the way out anyway.

I work with people in the social services system and know public officials don’t wish anyone harm, but there are rules, right? In fact, that was said at this community meeting as well: if the case manager is licensed, they have to adhere to reporting requirements.  Besides, in most cases they want to say something anyway because they want to help the family out of that situation, especially if there are children involved.

No one is bad in this scenario. The family renting is struggling in poverty and is doing just that; they are struggling. The service providers aren’t trying to hurt the family; they are trained to help families. The problem is we don’t understand each other’s perspectives.

A decade or so ago when I started doing this work, I attended a seminar related to author Ruby Payne’s book series, “Bridges out of Poverty” I participated so I could serve families better. That happened, but what I didn’t expect was how it would affect me on a personal level coming from and living in poverty myself. The knowledge and lessons learned has helped me save countless other women through a program based on its principles.

As a community, we see things differently depending on the social/economic class we live in. If we live in poverty, for example, our thoughts around food will most likely be, “Will there be enough?” That’s far different than middle class living where “quality” of the food is the priority, or wealth where the priority about food centers on “presentation.”

My point is at the most basic level of needs in life, we see and seek things from different perspectives. So we think and react differently, which makes our choices and actions different.

However, at the core we all want the same thing: we seek wellbeing and vitality as a community.  We crave a chance for every resident who works hard to have it.  We need to build it together to truly make it work.

How often does a social service agency ask the client to work with them on a solution? Rather, we ask them to live by the new set of rules we give them. We offer them middle class opportunities like college and to own their own home. Then we expect them to achieve and sustain this from their poverty-managed lives. Once service providers realize that doesn’t work, we add components called “soft skills” that teach us to behave by the new set of “middle class” rules. It rarely occurs to ask clients why the “rules” are so difficult to abide by.

Doesn’t it seem more rational to create a program together? To find the solutions together? No one understands poverty better than those who live it. Why not ask them what it takes to find a pathway out.

A few weeks ago, I was quoted in an Enquirer article as saying, “People with wealth throw money at poverty while middle class do gooders try to figure out how to spend it,” or something to that effect.

What I meant was this: people of wealth give money because they want to help. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong there.  Typically it is people of middle class means, with good intentions that serve the programs that the wealthy give their money to.  From their perspectives about life and what it takes to achieve greatness, they plan programs that families in poverty will become the recipients of.

Yet despite their good intentions these programs aren’t built with the perspectives of poverty in mind, they are built with the perspectives of middle class.  Because that is what we want the families in poverty to achieve. Then we spend our time in meetings asking why people would not want to seek help from law enforcement or the courts when generationally they have largely never seen that help anyone.

Do residents of Battle Creek living in poverty really have the resources to rise above their poverty? I suppose there are pockets of luck and opportunity, but realistically for the masses there is very little chance. Even at a national level we have figured out that minimum wage jobs are not a means to an end. Yet the very agencies that serve these poor families do so through these quite limited opportunities.

Why do we need to educate people about poverty? Because without a clear understanding of what got them there or what keeps them there, people in poverty rarely find their way out. And for those of us that serve poverty, we need to understand a person can’t live a life of achievement from a posture of mere survival. Lastly, everyone needs to understand both rich and poor have “survival rules” and they are vastly different for meeting the same needs. In short, for us to all truly create change, everyone needs to ‘walk a mile in each other’s shoes.’

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