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Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Public Policy ... Society ...

Since it’s a weeknight and I’m still working full time for a living, I’m gonna try to make this quick. I’m just going to cite an interesting article that I read over the weekend, and add a quick though or two, not a complete essay.

If you are interesting in poverty and social justice in America, Nicholas Kristof has a very thought provoking (and hopefully an ACTION provoking) article in the NY Times, entitled “The Way to Beat Poverty“. That’s quite an ambitious title, given that America has been trying to beat poverty since the days of Lyndon Johnson. To put it optimistically, our national efforts have had “mixed success” over the past half century. Kristof and co-author Cheryl WuDunn contend that the ongoing generational poverty experienced by many low-income communities is caused, to a great extent, by poor pre-natal and early life care for infants.

We’ve always known that sub-standard conditions in early life were an effect of poverty, but Kristof is saying that it is in fact a CAUSE. He doesn’t use the politically incorrect expressions “cycle of poverty” and “poverty culture” (this is the New York Times, after all!), but that’s pretty clearly what he’s getting at.

Kristof cites both biological and sociological research along with personal anecdotes to support what appears to be a very cogent and compelling argument — i.e. that single mothers who don’t take proper care of themselves while pregnant, and of their children after birth, impose life-long psychological, emotional and physiological deficits that hinder success as adults. Kristof goes on to argue that there aren’t nearly enough social and governmental programs in poor areas to make a real impact in this problem; but that a modest investment by governments and private charity to expand these efforts would go a long way to reduce poverty over time. I.e., society would get a lot of bang for the buck by ensuring good pre-natal care and early parenting support for poor families — perhaps more return than from the usual nostrums for poverty, e.g. better schools, low-income housing, job training and placement, local economic development to create jobs, etc.

Well, I certainly agree with Mr. Kristof, and I definitely support more funding for early life programs. But let me ask one question, perhaps a somewhat inconvenient question, for New York Times readers and their like – – isn’t Nicholas Kristof saying here that inner cities, mountain “hollars”, and rural villages in places like West Virginia and Mississippi are producing a class of people who are “damaged goods”? And doesn’t this support those who contend that the social and economic status of the denizens of these environments (who are often of black or Hispanic racial / ethnic heritage) is hindered mainly by their immediate social environment (yes, the “culture of poverty” thing), and not so much by any irrational racist presumptions of the American society at large?

I know that this is a very complex issue, and I personally agree with those who contend that racism and irrationality on the part of white Americans still exists, and still depresses opportunities for those of color hailing from impoverished circumstances. But, as Mr. Kristof’s logic proves, even liberals shouldn’t deny that there is “something about” these circumstances and communities that continues to self-inflict many of their own wounds.

I hope that Mr. Kristof’s excitement about having identified a low-cost “magic bullet” to break the poverty cycle turns out to be real. But the conservatives also have a point, in that community values DO matter — and perhaps Fox News commentators and radio talk show hosts aren’t entirely wrong in pointing this out (although they lose a lot of credibility by being so abrasive and smug). All the early childhood and parenting programs in the world won’t change things very much unless the community itself emphasizes the responsibility of its members to make sacrifices and invest the time and attention needed to allow their young to attain a better life.

I agree, let’s offer these communities more help in caring for their young — but let’s also require them to match these efforts with stronger demands for personal virtue on the part of their members, especially their young parents. There is plenty of virtue in low-income neighborhoods, but that virtue needs to be better taught and transmitted to the young.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:48 am      

  1. Jim, I certainly agreed with you through most of your post. But at some point toward the last few paragraphs I found that I was not quite sure exactly what it is you are saying regarding Kristof’s article on poverty and for that matter how the whole issue might be helped or solved.

    Having dealt on a close level with two separate individuals who basically have lived and in some ways still live the “street” life, I feel I may have some comments to make on this issue.

    It seems to me that much of what is said about poverty culture and poverty itself is quite intellectual when actually living such a life has very little to do with the intellectual aspect of being human. It does have a great deal to do with what might be called the “feeling” aspect of this culture. Specifically:

    The people living in a poverty culture are basically the same as everybody else; they love people deeply, care deeply about them, have deep emotional attachments; in other words are simply human beings.

    They *do* have some issues that prevent them from living what I’m going to call the “non-poverty” lifestyle. It should be noted that in the comments that follow, many of these individuals living a poverty lifestyle are highly intelligent. In addition I don’t think a solution as simple as making jobs available or good living areas available are the complete solution. They may be the solution for a lot of homeless individuals who are homeless because of temporary financial problems, loss of jobs, etc. But for the bulk of individuals caught up in the poverty lifestyle, I think it’s a different story.

    First of all, many of these individuals have an attachment to something about the life that attracts them; it meets some needs in their lives. Furthermore, given a chance to get out of the poverty lifestyle, they may tend to return to it now and then — or even more often than “now and then”. (I even heard Judge Matthis on TV say one time [I paraphrase here] that he “enjoyed” talking with such individuals now and then, getting back to that lifestyle he lived as a young man; but then he said quickly, “that’s enough now” and ended the conversation. He disciplined himself to not “go back”.)

    Part of these needs may arise from a mental illness of one or another kind. Some people simply do not see reality as others see it; that is, they are schizophrenic. Being schizophrenic does not mean that the person is not a human being; it simply means that this human being perceives reality in a different way from the major portion of humans. (I think this was discussed previously in another post on this blog.) Others have an issue with depression and/or bipolar problems. Again, these problems may not have such an impact on the “reality” issue as it has on the ability of the person to cope with the life they see others living. In addition some (not all) of these individuals may self-medicate with drugs and/or alcohol to help the divergence they see between how they see life and how they perceive others see life, thus adding more problems to already difficult issues.

    And to be honest, I find myself wondering just what the difference is between somebody who takes a myriad of medications for health purposes (basically to stay alive) and someone who self-medicates with other kinds of drugs/alcohol. I find myself asking just what is the major difference between someone who medicates with a doctor’s approval (by getting a prescription from the doctor) and someone who bypasses that “permission to use” medications process. Sometimes I think it’s that the one who bypasses the doctor just does not know the mass of drugs available to medicate one’s medical issues (be they physical or mental).

    I am not talking here about people who do illegal things and live a criminal lifestyle; they may deal a lot with the poverty lifestyle but many times they themselves do not live a poverty lifestyle. That group is a whole different story.

    People who grew up in a poverty lifestyle (or who chose it themselves) may say, “I need to stop living like this”, but often what they mean is they need to stop living that lifestyle for a while, till they get a “rest” (so to say) from it. When “rested”, they return to it. Actually getting away from such a lifestyle is a difficult thing because their entire family may be caught up in that lifestyle, all those they love and their friends may be in that lifestyle. If they know one or two people *not* living the poverty lifestyle, those few individuals are not enough to bring them out of it entirely.

    I do not think this topic of “poverty lifestyle” has any simple solution are fooling themselves. Mental health problems (of various kinds) receive little care or concern in our society. (I’ve noticed over the years, when budgets are cut, mental health is always close to the top of what is cut.) Furthermore, an intellectual approach to a *lifestyle* may explain a lot to a lot of individuals not caught up in such a lifestyle and not plagued by problems that lead to a poverty lifestyle, but a completely intellectual approach to trying to “cure” poverty simply will have no effect.

    And as you did in your post, I am avoiding and not discussing the history of how this lifestyle became so embedded in our culture. That’s another complex problem that goes back to the old days of blatant racism in our country.

    I’m not sure if any of this comment has anything to do with the last few paragraphs of your post. One thing I do know is that people living a poverty lifestyle are often good people with massive problems society does not want anything to do with. Yet, above all they are human beings who deserve the same care and consideration offered to the rest of humans who live a non-poverty lifestyle. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — September 18, 2014 @ 8:51 am

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