What can we do about poverty? Some answers to a daunting question

“If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” — John F. Kennedy

“The poor will always be with you.” –John 12:8

Arme kinderen voor een raam / Poor children lo...

(Photo credit: Nationaal Archief)

By Robert Mann

Not long ago, I spoke with a friend about the sad state of Louisiana’s education system.

I mentioned a story in that day’s New York Times, citing studies that indicate a student’s performance in school is determined not as much by race, but by wealth. Students from affluent backgrounds simply do better in school, for all kind of reasons, which you can read about in the piece at this link.

We spoke of education and poverty for a minute or two — and then my friend said, “You’re right, I’m sure. But I don’t know what we can ever do about poverty.”

I nodded my head, and we changed the conversation.

My inability, or my unwillingness, to continue this conversation by going deeper into a discussion about the real causes of poverty and how to fight it has troubled me.

I know that our seeming impotence in the face of poverty is sometimes debilitating. We don’t know where to start, so we don’t start at all. Many of us help the poor in various ways; but I’m talking here not about acts of mercy, but rather about justice.

The questions are fairly simple: What can someone like you and me do that would address the root causes of poverty in our society?  What are the initiatives or programs we should get behind, the policies we should champion, the organizations we should support?

The answers, of course, are not quite so simple.

So, I reached out to more than a dozen friends, colleagues and students, and invited them to ponder these questions.

Here’s what I wrote:

What can we do by ourselves or together that would change lives in our community, our state or the nation? What could we do beyond becoming a reading friend, serving at a soup kitchen, or contributing to the food bank?  Or, are individual acts of mercy the very thing we should focus on (I think of that saying, “Everyone wants to save the world, but no one helps mom with the dishes.”)

Please give some thought to this very simple question, “What can we — I — do about poverty?”

In about 24 hours, I had an inbox full of responses, each of them thoughtful and insightful.

At first, I thought I would write a dazzling, brilliant post in which I synthesized the various comments. Instead, I’m allowing them to speak for themselves.

Some respondents resisted my entreaty to set aside personal acts of mercy, insisting, correctly, that nurturing relationships with the poor is a very big part of attacking poverty.  One wrote,

Mentor a child in poverty.  Yes, that means reading to her and with her, but it’s more than that.  Find ways to help that child feel valued and worthwhile.  Talk to her, but more importantly, listen to her.  Convey the message that her thoughts and feelings matter.  Without lecturing, teach her about delayed gratification, encourage her, and talk about the necessity of perseverance in reaching a goal.  If she’s old enough, help her understand the concept of “the feminization of poverty” and what she can do to avoid that fate.  

Similarly, another friend told me,

In my personal experience, a “hand out” is not a “hand up.” As the expression goes — “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.  Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” I would take it one step further — “Inspire a man to want to learn how to fish.” We are talking about value formation here, something that is transmitted at a very early age and is unfortunately limited by the normative culture of the generational poor. Change can happen but it needs to be a sustained one on one effort. The children of the poor should be, in my opinion, the focus of social change. Role models and mentors are powerful influences. Providing adults with skills to enable them to function productively in society will only be effective if their inherent cultural values are modified to the degree that desire for change is internalized. 

Most of my respondents, however, focused on acts of justice.

And each wrestled in profound ways with my questions.

One friend, in particular, responded with a message that expressed perfectly the frustration I sometimes feel when thinking about poverty:

Anais Nin has said, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

How much pain do I have to feel before I am willing to address the problem? Is the problem of poverty for me or a loved one or someone I work with causing enough pain that I want to do something about it?

Charity work is very important. It puts people close to the problem of poverty. It puts people close to people who are suffering. What transforms a person from someone who helps another through works of mercy to someone who wants to end the obstacles and systems that keep that person in poverty?

I see two types of people who respond in ways of charity. There is the person who feels good about their works of charity but continues to judge the person who takes charity. Then there is the person who allows herself to be changed by the person she serves. That opening of the heart to the “other,” without judgment, sets the stage for transformation that moves one from charity work to justice work. The acknowledgement that I have something to learn from the other in this experience, is the humility needed to realize that I am not the more important person in this transaction just because I have the resources and the other needs me. We are both children of God with gifts to bring to one another. This requires risk. When I acknowledge that others are gift to me and allow myself to be changed by this, then I can begin to look to the other as capable of working on the problems with me, determining solutions together to solve our problems of poverty. 

But this still begs the question: What’s the best way to attack poverty?

For one friend, it’s changing the political system:

My first thought was if we don’t get money out of politics so our representatives can address important priorities without an eye on the next election, poverty will continue to grow as a social problem.  Public officials are so focused on getting money to run again, and on enacting policies that please their donors that they have lost sight of any mission to work for the common good.  

Another friend pointed to the political system, as well, only from a different angle:

Louisiana has been going in the wrong direction in public investment, which is one reason our poverty rate is climbing while the rest of the country has stabilized. We keep hearing about a “spending problem” in state government, when in fact state revenues as a percentage of the overall economy (GSP) are at a 20-year low. We spend money on TOPS for average kids who don’t need the help, but refuse to boost spending on need-based aid even as the need increases during a deep recession. We subsidize film producers and frackers but freeze the MFP and cut money for the least among us. We get tax proposals from the governor that would make the rich richer and the poor poorer, and when that won’t fly we don’t think about raising revenue but instead devolve into a stupid, pointless battle over “one-time” money.  

Several noted the link of poverty to our poor education system:

I strongly believe that education is the strongest driver of social mobility, so naturally I would encourage individuals wanting to make a difference to get behind literacy campaigns, education reform, job retooling, job networking, etc. However, adequate public schooling does not address the issue of low-quality home and neighborhood environments. I think the best way to inhibit several of poverty’s pathways is to foster trust within communities and a sense of unity. I think that churches, local organizations, ministries, and charities give local people a chance to tackle the needs of the people around them without waiting on lawmakers to act for them. No one knows the needs of the poor in a particular area better than those that do life around them. Some pathways may be more prevalent in some regions than in others, so this decentralized strategy ensures efficient allocation of resources. Sadly, the culture of many impoverished regions discourages trust between groups/individuals. It prevents informal job networking from occurring and further progress from being made. Local groups can step in and often supplement gaps in government assistance to give people the boost they need to get a job or go back to school.

On education, another said:

Start as early as possible. Poor kids often start school without the same cognitive skills as kids from wealthier, more educated families because they simply don’t have the same atmosphere of learning and discovery at home. We know that money spent on things like high-quality child-care and pre-K programs have a strongly positive return on investment, compared to programs that help older kids or adults. One of the best, most proven anti-poverty tools is the Nurse-Family Partnership, which sends specially trained nurses into the homes of at-risk parents and teaches them basic parenting skills. Children whose parents participated in this program are considerably more likely to graduate high school, less likely to go to jail and more likely to become taxpaying, productive citizens. But the home visits in this program were eliminated as part of the mid-year cuts. Right now, the kids who are most in need of a high-quality child-care program from birth-3 are the ones most likely to be left with a neighbor or relative who puts them in front of the TV all day while mom goes to work at Wal-Mart. . . .

Stop devaluing teachers, and instead give them incentives to teach in low-income areas. Right now, the best teachers often gravitate to the best schools – i.e., the ones with the most high-achieving kids from wealthy families. The kids that most need an excellent teacher often get the dregs of the profession (my lovely wife being an exceptional exception to this rule). The simple fact is that it costs more money to educate a child from a disadvantaged background than it does to educate a kid who already has piano lessons, tutoring and a nurturing, book-filled home environment.

On education, another wrote,

An uninformed and disengaged citizenry works out well for those in power, so expose the child to different attitudes about what it means to be a good citizen, and the importance of being engaged in our political system.  It’s hard for these children to imagine a future, particularly one that looks any different from the present–with good reason.  The odds are stacked against them.  Sometimes, however, one person in a child’s life can make a huge difference.  Big Sisters and Big Brothers are organizations that can connect you with such a child.

Then, there is the problem of race and its connection to poverty. One friend wrote,

How useful is it to compare and contrast poverty with racism? I wish I knew more about this, but I remember hearing that at the time of MLK’s assassination, the Poor People’s Campaign had begun and some believe this was even more threatening to the status quo than his civil rights efforts – that poor whites aligning themselves with people of color (still to this day disproportionately living in poverty) could lead to a political revolution. Throughout US history, there are many examples where the fates of poor whites have been kept separate from poor people of color: indentured servant-hood vs. slavery; housing projects serving as a temporary stepping stone for Irish and Italians, but multi-generational for African-Americans; freedom to use GI Bill to buy (build equity, the cornerstone of wealth) a home in any neighborhood for whites, but not so much for Black veterans.  

 Imagine if all poor people organized, despite race/ethnicity.  But we’ve had the likes of David Duke convincing poor whites to support him even while the numbers of whites on welfare far exceeded the numbers of families of color. (Btw, Duke was the first I remember hearing in LA wanting to drug test welfare recipients. What about testing other recipients of public money, including legislators?!).  Is the tape of Romney talking about “the 47%” much different?  Isn’t it mostly the same language in slightly cleaner code?  If people of color are disproportionately living in poverty, then have anti-poverty measures disproportionately helped people of color?  If historically, poor whites have fared better, then maybe we simply cannot separate racism from poverty.  Sure affluent kids of all backgrounds do better, but what are the odds of becoming affluent?  It’s the same thing as saying individual acts of racism are unacceptable in modern society, and yet systemic racism continues with bi-partisan support.  For example, they will erode our tax base, but throw vouchers at some kids.  Then others cherry-pick the kids and push out anyone not conforming to the system.  Maybe one of those kids with a golden ticket becomes the next Oprah, and then they can say they were successful – that experimenting with public education isn’t racist, just look at Oprah.2.  So the others were what? Too lazy?

I was surprised that only one person mentioned drugs and our deplorable criminal justice system:

We have the world’s highest incarceration rate – and more than 60 percent of state inmates are locked up for nonviolent crimes. About 15,000 felons get released from jail each year in Louisiana and once they have that criminal record they become less employable for the rest of their lives. Simply ending the war on drugs, and the Draconian penalties that it brought, would enable tens of thousands of our fellow citizens to become productive adults once their high-crime, high-risk teens and early 20s are behind them. Recognize drugs as a public health problem.

Perhaps most challenging, to me at least, were my friends who stressed the importance of activism, of throwing oneself into the work of ridding our world of poverty.

[K]eep having conversations with people and writing about economic justice and poverty as moral issues, because they are.  The Occupy movement hasn’t received sustained media attention, and they don’t have a good political strategy, but they serve a good purpose nonetheless.  I don’t for a minute believe Obama and the Dems would have made inequality a campaign issue last year absent that movement.  Poverty hasn’t been atop anybody’s agenda since LBJ and RFK, and still isn’t.  We hear concerns mostly about the shrinking middle class. We need to keep poverty and inequality on the front burner, because, as odd as it may sound, alleviating those injustices would benefit us all.

Nothing happens quickly in Washington unless it involves getting Congress on a flight home for a recess, so we should all be prepared for the long haul in terms of keeping a spotlight on the immorality of poverty/inequality.  Christians, in particular, might want to think about how much time Jesus spent on addressing poverty as opposed to other issues.

More methodical about activism was this friend:

1. Acknowledge that individual acts of kindness, mercy and compassion, as laudable and helpful as they are, will never be enough

2. Acknowledge that corporate action is necessary.  By “corporate” I mean collective, societal action

3. Recognize that our society faces two problems–(1) those who, by reason on age or other conditions, are simply beyond being equipped to rise out of poverty and (2) those who are young enough or otherwise capable of being equipped to change their circumstances.

4. Recognize that we must offer aid to those who are beyond change while at the same time equipping others to change in good ways that will lead them out of poverty. 

5. We need programs for both sets of people (remembering always that these are people)

6. What programs? For those who are past a certain point, basic services for basic needs; for the others, education (e.g., LA 4), job training, employment (by government as a last resort) and the list goes on.  There are plenty of studies that show what works.  What we lack is the collective will to act.

7. What is paradoxical is that despite compelling evidence that it is much cheaper to equip than it is to support, we continue to reject equipping and complain about the cost of supporting.

When it comes to activism, how do we know which program or solution we should be fighting for?  One particularly wise friend had a suggestion that some activists never consider:

We need to hear each other’s stories. We need to learn from the wisdom that comes from suffering. People closest to the problem have some good ideas about how to solve the problems that most impact them. But our policy makers tend to try to come up with solutions based on their own notions of why people are in poverty. That is why people who are apt to “blame the victim” are not the best judge of how to solve the problem of the oppressed. Listen to the oppressed. Listen to the person in poverty.

First step to solving the problem of poverty: listen to those closest to the problem. Build relationships together that will withstand the struggle of solving the problems together.

Step two, find out who among those struggling has the potential to be a leader, someone who tends to lead others, is passionate about people and their issues. Build their capacity.

Step three, look at their issues with them and tackle the issues with them. Start with winnable issues that can help teach the way of tackling bigger issues.

Much of this listening occurs within community organizations and churches, as one of my students noted:

I think the best way to inhibit several of poverty’s pathways is to foster trust within communities and a sense of unity. I think that churches, local organizations, ministries, and charities give local people a chance to tackle the needs of the people around them without waiting on lawmakers to act for them. No one knows the needs of the poor in a particular area better than those that do life around them. Some pathways may be more prevalent in some regions than in others, so this decentralized strategy ensures efficient allocation of resources. Sadly, the culture of many impoverished regions discourages trust between groups/individuals. It prevents informal job networking from occurring and further progress from being made. Local groups can step in and often supplement gaps in government assistance to give people the boost they need to get a job or go back to school.

Which brings me back to activism on behalf of justice. How and where to start?

So what does justice work entail? When we say justice work, what do we mean? Justice work entails changing systems that perpetuate injustice. Justice work entails maintaining systems that build people up to the potential that God has in mind. America is the greatest place in the world to work to end injustice, to grant people the freedom to make a good life for themselves and their children. How does this work? We can elect who writes the laws. We can tell them what we expect. We can vote them out of office if we don’t like what they are doing. We can talk to the most important leaders in one of the most powerful places on the world. We just need to regain our memory about our ability to do this. And we need to act again as a people who have such power. We need to vote again. We can do our own research about what matters to us, to inform ourselves and others who want change and those who make the policies that affect us. We need to make our democracy work for us again.

For some this work may seem too slow and tedious and laborious. It is. The world will not be changed swiftly. But there are graces along the way that are gifts to us to help us keep going. The grace of friendship is one. The grace of freedom of the spirit. The grace of becoming aware of one’s capabilities, capacity, dignity and belovedness. For me one of the greatest of these graces is a renewed hope in our future.

Speaking of stories, I will end with an eloquent one — shared by former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, for whom I worked for several years.

Years ago when I was a member of the Legislature, I hired a housekeeper/sitter who worked for me 5 days a week and helped me with my children, too.  She had six kids and a broken down car.  I had six kids and two broken down cars.  I paid her exactly half of my take home pay, so we were working for the same amount of money.  The difference between us was that I had a spouse who had a good job and she was a single mom.  She was determined that her kids would not think they could use welfare to live on (in the pre-Clinton reform days) and made that point to them quite often.

It has been many years since she worked for me, but we stay connected to her and the children who are now grown with kids of their own.  Only one of her six got into a bit of trouble with the law, which broke her heart.  Most finished high school.  Three or four made it into college and two or three are college graduates.   One is a high school graduate with a regular job who also organized a small family business with his brothers.  He works with them whenever he is off from his day job. 

Most are productive, hard-working children with solid goals for their own children. Some married college graduates. 

Through the years difficulties persisted and we were there to back them up, and still do.  She is just a few years younger than me, but says I am her mom.  If we had not kept our “adopted” family together — which was not always easy with our limited resources that had to stretch over our own large crew — that story would have a different ending.  If she had taught them to be lazy, a good ending would have been impossible. It took both efforts to have any success. 

We had to lend assistance just last week and feel so blessed to be able to do it.  Yes, we do have to wash the dishes with Mom sometimes.  If we can get young people properly educated, poverty can be dented.  I still firmly believe “Education is poverty’s mortal enemy,” my quote from my inaugural address.  

So, what about you? What’s your answer to my questions about attacking poverty?

Please leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

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3 Responses to What can we do about poverty? Some answers to a daunting question

  1. Stephen Winham says:

    These are all good thoughts. The scripture you quote at the beginning has a second part. I’m no Bible scholar, but the whole verse seems to say: “The poor will always be here and you can always do something good for them, but I (Jesus) am leaving soon and I need now what you are proposing to give to the poor.”

    I have pondered the issue of poverty throughout my life. The Bible has a lot of truths in it, along with some really incredibly horrible and hard to understand things like those included in your last post. This reference to the poor would seem to be one of the truths we can apply today. It implies that, no matter what one does, there will always be some poor people and there is a point where other things have to take precedence in the allocation of our resources. To say not everyone can, or should be Mother Teresa is an understatement. Should we neglect the needs of our own family and friends to care for the poor even if we have compassion for them? I think the answer is a clear “no”.

    In many third world countries, the poor are simply ignored. In others, they are ignored because of a belief the poor are poor because it is their destiny to be poor and there is nothing that can, or should, be done about it. Let us hope we never reach even the first point in this country.

    About all I know we, as individuals, can do about poverty on a macro level is to influence public opinion by supporting programs for the poor that make sense through contact with our legislators and other leaders and by talking these programs up in writing and in person in our contacts with each other. It is our responsibility to make others aware of the costs of poverty, not just in the human suffering of the poor, but to us all. Some people will listen. Others won’t, and there is nothing we can do in those cases.

    Although the solution to poverty is complex, there is at least one simple truth: To the extent public policy addresses poverty, it is good for our economy, education system, overall health, and every other aspect of our economy.

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  2. Stephen Winham says:

    last word should be “society”. Sorry.

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  3. Robert Mann says:

    Thanks, Steve. Well said. Regarding the scripture, I heard someone recently say that Jesus’ statement about the poor always being with us was more an indictment than a statement of acceptance of their plight.

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