GeoRene Jones: People in poverty live by different rules

Published 12:01 am Sunday, January 17, 2016

By GeoRene Jones

Special to the Salisbury Post

In the 1960s, my family were the only Protestants in a devoutly Catholic neighborhood. My dad, a Protestant minister, did his very best to help me understand the difference between our faith tradition and theirs. A few years ago, I voluntarily spent six months in the adult catechism class in a Roman Catholic parish in Raleigh and realized I didn’t know much about Catholicism; how could I when all I knew was what I’d learned from Protestants?

Recent events nationally, and locally, suggest it’s a good time to learn about poverty and who better to learn from than experts in the field. We look for answers from leaders in academia, public health, non-profit, faith-leaders and find ourselves providing creative programs. Then, programs fail, workers in the trenches burn out, and those opposed to funding further programs chalk it up as a victory for their side. Who remains for us ask the hard questions?

Early in her career, educator Dr. Ruby K. Payne desired to know why educational success was a greater challenge for students from poverty households than those from middle-class households. After gathering and analyzing all the research available in the U.S. since World War II, Payne redefined poverty.  Instead of monetary guidelines, poverty is the extent to which one does without resources.  Resources include: mental, emotional, spiritual, physical, support systems, relationships, financial and knowledge of the hidden rules of middle-class. Hidden rules are the unspoken cues existing in any group which allow members to quickly identify who is one of them — and who is not.

The rules governing life in poverty are quite different than those in middle-class. People who work in schools, non-profits, agencies, faith-based organizations, confirm this. Still we continue to create solutions designed according to the hidden rules of middle-class.

In “Toxic Charity,” Robert Lupton outlines the detrimental effects of middle-class solutions applied to poverty problems. Regardless how well-meant, middle-class solutions are too often either not sustainable, or destroy the personal agency of those served. In either case, the solution leaves those served dependent on the “helpers” instead of developing self-sufficiency.

Anthropology teaches us that a social grouping which undergoes a change in its structure adapts by creating and adopting new values. After three generations, members of the society behave and interact according to values completely foreign to the grandparent generation. The War on Poverty was declared in 1964 and we are in the third generation since. The system designed as a safety net is now an unwieldy behemoth, and the social group it was meant to help has adapted accordingly.

Now, the constant stress of coping with life in poverty requires a tremendous reservoir of emotional, spiritual and mental resources, and the constant stress wears down physical health. The poor are the least healthy among us, yet neither public benefits nor business standards encourage down time for self-care among the lowest-paid in our work force.

University of Oregon psychologist Dr. Elliot Berkman writes, “When considering poverty, our national conversation tends to overlook systemic causes. Instead, we often blame the poor for their poverty.  (R)esearch says … poverty makes it hard for people to care about the future and forces them to live in the present.”

Ruby Payne called that, “living in the tyranny of the moment.”

Middle class values are achievement oriented. Future achievement does not develop without resources for more than merely today’s survival. Survival in poverty requires relationships — persons upon whom one can rely and turn to for help. When middle class persons turn to others for help, it’s called “networking” When the poor look to others for help, it’s frequently characterized as scamming the system.

The late Steven Covey insisted a necessary key to success is the ability to understand those unlike us. Combining Payne’s framework with Covey’s strategy leads me to believe that if we are to successfully break the cycle of poverty, the experts from whom we must learn are the poor living among us.

In our strategic efforts, perhaps the first question each of us should ask is, “With whom should we want the poor to build positive relationships?” And then take a long look in the nearest mirror.

GeoRene Jones is a certified trainer for Bridges Out of Poverty and an approved diaconal minister, ELCA.