Living in poverty is not an individual choice. The sooner we recognize that, the sooner we can come up with real solutions.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 14.5 percent of Americans are poor, but poverty doesn’t rank very high when Americans are asked which issues they’re most concerned about.
And only 16 percent of Americans are satisfied with the way the government deals with poverty, the lowest percentage since Gallup began asking about that in 2001.
The way people, including policymakers, think about poverty affects both how important we think fighting poverty is and the effectiveness of strategies for addressing it, which is why two University of Washington professors have started an effort to enrich people’s understanding of poverty.
Victoria Lawson and Sarah Elwood are geography professors and founders of the Relational Poverty Network, an international coalition of academic institutions and organizations whose work is relevant to understanding poverty.
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They told me this week that Americans in particular tend to see poverty as a matter of individual choices and behaviors, when it is, in fact, much more complex. Living in poverty stems from a mix of economic and structural factors and societal relationships.
Lawson said their work “grows out of a sense that the cultural narratives around poverty in the U.S., the narratives that drive politics and drive policy are really impoverished themselves.” Seeing poverty as an individual problem misses the root causes and creative solutions.
I asked the professors how they began to question the prevailing understanding of poverty. Lawson said, “I grew up in England in a very, very class-bound society, lower-middle class with parents always desperately aspiring to be upper class. I was raised with that idea that we aren’t enough and that we need to be more.”
After she came to the U.S., she traveled to Ecuador and worked with low-income women and came to see herself as a privileged person. Later she began a project on rural poverty in the Northwest intending to interview poor people. But she realized that “in the communities that we went to, actually the people who produced poverty were the decision-makers and the thought leaders and the politicians. …”
Didn’t we get an education in that from Ferguson, Mo., where officials raised money on the backs of low-income people, sometimes forcing them into poverty? Decisions about transit routes determine who can get to jobs. Policies toward immigrant workers affect their livelihood. The availability of high-quality education shapes life prospects, and on and on. Those are all decisions made by people who aren’t poor.
Elwood said: “For me, the moment of recognizing privilege came in the early 1980s growing up in Western Oregon in the midst of the national recession.” The timber industry was hurting, she said. Her family was middle class, but Elwood attended a school where many students were from families that depended on timber for a living. She began “seeing the kinds of dislocation … happening to kids all around me and recognizing rather keenly that those things were not happening to my family.”
Much of the professors’ work focuses on the relationship between the middle class and poverty. Being middle class is about more than income or possessions, it’s a cultural status.
A collaboration with colleagues in Argentina found that middle-class identity is understood as part of what it means to be an American or an Argentine.
In both countries, Lawson said, “Middleclassness is clean, orderly, moral, hard working. It is the aspirational ideal for both societies, and the poor are the “other” to that — lazy, criminal, fear-inducing, disorderly.
That categorization is about power, they said: Whom should the state respond to? Whom should the state listen to? Who has rights?
When there’s an economic crisis, that way of categorizing people affects how we see the vulnerability of the middle class versus the vulnerability of poor people.
We have a more sympathetic view of middle-class people who lose their homes in a crisis. That view is different from the way we see poorer people who can’t get housing because of the workings of the housing market.
Lawson and Elwood said the difference makes it nearly impossible for anybody to see the struggles of the middle class and the poor as related.
They mentioned a video by University of California, Berkeley Professor Ananya Roy, “Who Sees Poverty?” . At one point, Roy says she lives in publicly subsidized housing. Yes, the government subsidizes her mortgage, but we don’t usually think of middle-class entitlements that way.
And the professors said Americans often view poverty in Africa with more empathy than they view poverty here. Lawson often asks her students, how their view of poverty here helps them to remain comfortable with their own status, and what political effect it has.
Lawson said she has students who’ve done service-learning projects in impoverished countries but who can sit in a coffee shop and feel distaste as they look out at a homeless person.
The Relational Poverty Network held its first meeting last fall, but already there are almost 300 members, and the professors say interest in changing how poverty is seen, studied and addressed is growing.
They hope fresh ideas will flow over geographic boundaries and out of academia into public policy. It is more than time to open our eyes and see that the existence of so much poverty in America is a result of political and economic choices we can change.