Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Culture, poverty and homelessness

Back in 2010, there was a Congressional briefing called Reconsidering Culture and Poverty based on a special issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

I found it after reading a quote from Michael Goodwin, a FOX contributor, stating “the problem that struggling Americans receiving SNAP benefits (food stamps) have isn't really hunger or poverty. It's that they're not ashamed enough about taking the help.”

I realize that commentators take controversial positions to get attention. What worries me is that “policy makers and the public still tend to view poverty through one of two competing lenses. As Michèle Lamont, an editor of the special issue of The Annals, said: ‘Are the poor poor because they are lazy, or are the poor poor because they are a victim of the markets?’”

Or more formally, Michael Laracy, Director of Director of Policy Reform and Advocacy at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, said, “Too often, discussions here in Washington ... revert to sort of sterile, default positions with liberals wholly blaming structural issues such as the economy or racism while conservatives too quickly fault our culture and our poor families for counterproductive behaviors and attitudes.”

The positions are so far apart it’s hard to find any middle ground.  If, as liberals believe, the economy and racism cause poverty and homelessness, it feels like there is no solution. The only thing to do for poor families is offer assistance like food stamps. If, as conservatives believe, all poor families are lazy, then they mustn’t deserve assistance.

Around Community LINC, we operate on the assumption that there is indeed a culture of generational homelessness and poverty. Representative Lynne Woolsey of California captured it best when she said, “What a concept. Values, norms, beliefs play very important roles in the way people meet the challenges of poverty.”

But, we don’t share the belief that people should be condemned for what they didn’t learn growing up in poverty.

Instead, we believe in teaching the coping skills, behaviors and attitudes needed to hold a job, stay in school and create better lives for themselves and their children.

We believe that equipping someone willing to learn with knowledge they need is good not just for them, but for the community.