Warren Dunn

Still Talking About It

Up until I attended a few of “listening sessions” of The Partnership for Prosperity,” I had always considered poverty only as a condition to be overcome not as a collection of attributes that had an underpinning psychology.

Boy, was I wrong.  Having worked in some anti-poverty programs, I have since castigated myself for not understanding the unique psychological features of poverty.  It is obvious that poverty is a condition and working exclusively on the outcomes of poverty is far easier to understand because they revolve around not having enough money to go to the doctor, buy a home, get enough to eat, or gain skill sets necessary in today’s economy.   While I was not one of those who felt just throwing money at a problem would solve it, and I did have a nascent idea that attitudes, the foundation for psychology, differed among “the client groups,” resource allocation is a definite part of reducing poverty.

The point is that, from a few comments made at these sessions, when attended by those who had experienced poverty, and from scholarly studies easily available on the Internet, I have learned things that will affect any program that passes scrutiny by The Partnership for Prosperity.  That’s why the newly formed Advisory Board for the Partnership is so important.  Ten of the positions must be filled with people who have experience, or are experiencing, poverty.   They’re the ones who will know best what works and what doesn’t.

So, I learned, and am now paraphrasing and condensing (with my own perceptions) the conclusions of the studies I pursued

  • The psychological aspect of poverty begins to a large degree with a peculiar American brand of racism, one that is a weird combination of benevolent paternalism and disdain. Time after time, I have heard stories about beloved domestic help that escapes the collective judgment about an “inferior” race.  A value system that elevates fierce individualism to the status of a Biblical injunction also contributes to the psychology of poverty.  I get a little tired of the “teach a man to fish” story.

  • There is example after example of people having overcome the “psychology” of poverty to become leaders and extraordinary citizens. There is also ample evidence that the cycle of poverty leads to aberrant social behavior.  Duh?

  • Over time, poverty can have a detrimental effect on the brain.

  • Some researchers into the effects of poverty feel that we know that poverty is not good for you and that it is a moral issue that needs to be addressed in that context.  In other words, stop talking about it and do something.

  • Policy makers who do not understand the “psychology” of poverty are apt to make mistakes or face “impediments” that make program outcomes uncertain.

  • Those experiencing poverty lose confidence in their ability to overcome it.

  • Negative stereotypes of those experiencing poverty result in misunderstandings likely to retard progress in ameliorating the effects of policy.

  • Poverty can lead to “a wide range of psychological illnesses” and can be linked to the length of time in poverty as well as a whole host of other effects. Being caught in a cycle of poverty can affect the brain, affecting cognitive development.

  • Lack of resources applied to the alleviation of poverty can lead to a sense of isolation and alienation by those experiencing poverty. But it’s not just “All about the money.”  But neither can you deny that money plays a significant role in ameliorating poverty.  So I “pursued” (meaning I didn’t really “read” it all the way through) the Winston-Salem budget to see if I could separate out from the $494.6 million budget for the city for the 2019-2020 fiscal year how much money was allocated for the fight against poverty.  Let’s start by admitting that every dollar in the budget is meant to contribute to improving the quality of life in Winston-Salem for everyone who lives here.  But for those things that have a direct impact on poverty, I stopped counting at $96 million because my hand-held calculator gave up, so the actual number is doubtlessly greater.  Anyway you count it, it’s a lot of money.   So is it any wonder that the elected officials of the city want to make sure it’s well-spent?    Hence The Partnership for Prosperity was not established just to spend more money, but to make sure the money that is being spent is being well-spent.  Hence, hence, the establishment of the citizen advisory board.

  • Anti-poverty programs that do not meet expectations for success can create a “been there, done that,” attitude.

  • Social interaction across racial and social status lines can have an impact on ameliorating poverty.

 There are a lot of nuances to these generalizations that permeate the studies of the psychology of poverty.  One is that there is a false distinction between “the deserving poor” and others in poverty.  This attitude appears to emerge from a failure to understand the psychology of poverty.   Another is the “mentoring” experience, in which a “Do as I say,” approach, either implied or overt, is resented.

Someone once said, “The poor are always with us.”    That may be true enough, but it’s a poor attitude on which to base society’s effort to end it.  There may be better ways to fight it, but the sin is not in failing, but in not trying.




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