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Why Do We Blame the Poor for Poverty?

What do you imagine when you think of American culture?

I see bootstraps. When I think of American culture I think about personal responsibility and equal opportunity. I was raised on the idea that I could do anything I wanted to if I got an education. But today, that American dream seems only to be available to the middle class and the wealthy.

Here’s why: The wicked step sister of personal responsibility and equal opportunity is blame and shame. Specifically, because "America is the land of opportunity" we blame people experiencing economic hardship, unemployment, and poverty for their situations and tell them that it’s their fault that they are poor.

Of course, the story is far more complex than that. According to a 2013 study by The Pew Charitable Trust, 70 percent of people born into poverty…never get out. That’s because there are real causes for poverty including lack of access to living wage jobs, affordable housing, childcare, and transportation, to name just a few. Coupled with the discrimination and the blame for their situations the poor face, it’s not surprising that America is struggling to provide the equal opportunities our culture cherishes.

The reason? People in poverty are less likely to see people they know well experiencing success in the workforce, in school, or in society in general, even when those people are putting in a lot of effort.

The America that people in poverty know and experience is this: “No matter how hard I try, nothing will change and there is no hope.”

I recently attended a two-day workshop about poverty and its impact on people experiencing it. It was led by Dr. Donna Beegle, a national poverty expert and author. Beegle herself grew up in generational poverty and got out of it; so she’s not just a policy wonk; she’s actually walked the walk, which for her included not finishing high school and marriage at age 15. Beegle’s facts about poverty come from empirical research and real life experience.

According to Beegle, here’s the life outlook poverty teaches people:

  • Generational Poverty: “Life happens to me and I don’t have any control over it.”
  • Working-Class Poverty: “I have some control over my life, but not very much.”
  • Situational Poverty: "I pulled myself out of poverty. If I did it, anyone can - you just have to make better choices, work harder, and make sacrifices."

One of the solutions Beegle believes makes a difference for people in poverty is to help them develop real relationships with people in other economic classes. Her research show that these relationships help people in poverty learn “middle class norms” including being taught to question and challenge, more effective communication skills, and that they are not different or deficient compared to people “who are making it.”

In a recent blog post (noted below), Seth Godin echoes Beegle’s sentiments:

“There are limits all around us, stereotypes, unlevel playing fields, systemic challenges where there should be support instead. A quiet but intensely corrosive impact these injustices create is in the minds of the disenfranchised, in their perception of what is possible.

The mirror we hold up to the person next to us is one of the most important pictures she will ever see.

If we can help just one person refuse to accept false limits, we've made a contribution. If we can give people the education, the tools and the access they need to reach their goals, we've made a difference. And if we can help erase the systemic stories, traditions and policies that push entire groups of people to insist on less, we've changed the world.”

Daily Work strives to help our job seekers’ change their perceptions about what’s possible for them and their families. We do this by meeting people where they are, acknowledging and celebrating their strengths, and providing them with resources, tools, and connections that will help them achieve their goals.

Organizations like Daily Work, with support from people like you, are helping people in poverty see and believe in a better future. Together, we are helping people in poverty escape blame and shame and hear a new message. It goes like this: 

We believe in you, we see your strengths, and we can connect you to people and resources that will help you succeed.

For more information and thoughts on this topic, check out these resources.

Next month, I’ll share some thoughts about actions you can take to make a difference for people in poverty.

Written by Julie Hoff, Executive Director at Daily Work

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