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Generational Poverty

April 2, 2009

Have you puzzled over how poverty as a way of life gets passed on from generation to generation? In her book, “See Poverty. Be The Difference,”  Dr. Donna Beegle tells her story of being born into generational poverty, dropping out of high school and having her first baby at 18, yet against the odds managing to rise above it all to become the educated woman that she is. She couldn’t do it by herself and she didn’t.

In her book, she explains that in the world of the generational poor the saying “if you work hard, you’ll move up” is a myth. She says, “A ‘job’ to me meant working very long hours, not being respected, little or no hope for moving up, being paid a  below-subsistence wage, still being evicted and often going hungry. ” She says that being made to go to school as a child “served as a distraction from being able to meet our daily needs or from being close to my family, the only thing I had.”    It meant being humiliated because she didn’t have the right clothes, shoes, lunch, supplies for home projects, money for class trips or speak middle class English.

She explains the impossible conundrum of receiving government assistance. “In 1986, I applied for welfare and was given $408 per month plus minimal food stamps for my two children and me, yet my rent was $395. When I decided to pay the utilities rather than the full rent, my welfare worker said that I needed money management classes.”  And,  “When I was presented with the opportunity to go to school, I was notified that the state welfare policies dictate that in order to qualify for welfare I needed to be available for any minimum-wage job. If I were in school, I would not be available. If I went to school, the government would sanction me and cut my welfare check from $408 to $258. The policy is still in effect in all but fives states today.” And finally, “Typically, despite the fact that government assistance falls short of covering people’s basic needs, many people cling to welfare because they see no options for earning money for survival with their skill and educational levels. They often have internalized their poverty as a personal deficiency (rather than a structural problem in our society that keeps the poor poor) and no longer see hope for anything but welfare or disability.”

Poverty of this kind can be found very nearby and is closer to our congregation than many of you may know.  Adding to that I would just like to say that I am acquainted with a handful of people in the Pendleton area whose every waking moment is taken up with questions of basic survival: What will we eat? Where will we sleep tonight? Can we find a way to keep our heat on? Whose car got towed? Whose license got suspended for no insurance? Can I trust people outside of my family?

Dr. Beegle’s story is heartbreaking and fascinating. Her insight is remarkable. Her book along with my weekly exposure to the poor in our community has changed my perspective and opened my eyes to how the cycle of poverty is perpetuated generation after generation. The poor deserve to be taken seriously and to be given a lot more respect from us who think we know how they can fix their life of poverty.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Brandy permalink
    April 13, 2009 5:27 pm

    Great Post! The last sentence, “The poor deserve to be taken seriously and to be given a lot more respect from us who think we know how they can fix their life of poverty.” Sums it up perfectly! Money alone will not make people open to change, but treating them with dignity and respect will. I honestly feel that the cycle of poverty, is more like a cyclone, and can not be broken with money alone or passing judgment or trying to use guilt to persuade someone into a better life. Instead, a compassionate community, that shows true respect for the struggles of others and an honest desire to help, can be the hand that pulls some one from the destructive cyclone of poverty and on to a path, although still tricky at times, with direction.

    Fitting analogy I suppose with this weather 🙂

  2. pendletonpresbyterian permalink*
    April 14, 2009 2:45 pm

    Yes, it takes a community of support. People trapped in the daily grind of poverty cannot do it with will power and determination alone because there are many structural problems in our society that keep people caught in poverty. Poverty is like a cancer that consumes all the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual energy of a person so that there is nothing left for anything beyond survival. Having your basic needs for security, food, shelter and transportation-in our society a car is a basic need, gets you to the starting line for improving your circumstances.The problem with those trapped in poverty is that they can’t get to the starting line.Their lives are consumed with meeting their basic needs on a daily basis. Government assistance in combination with a minimum wage job is not enough. So even if you do want to change your life around and get the education (the cost of which even the middle class is finding increasingly difficult to afford) and vocational training you need for a real job you can’t get it because going back to school means you get penalized by the government for not being available for a minimum wage job.The difference as you mentioned is a compassionate community willing to do what it takes, no matter how messy, to help lift a person out of their poverty.

    Paul speaks of the church as a “koinonia”- a fellowship or partnership. In his letter to the church at Philippi he says, “I thank my God every time I remember you, in all of my prayers for all of you because of your parnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” The Greek word “koinonia” describes a business relationship between partners. Paul’s relationship with his beloved brothers and sisters at Philippi is a business partnership, an investment in the gospel. And as you can guess business partnerships require investment of people, knowledge, talent, skill, time and money. Paul’s thanks to God is in part at least the fact that the church at Philippi gets it. They understand what it means to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.

    The church is not a social agency and would do a very poor job of what is already being well done by Clemson Community Care, Anderson, Interfaith Ministry, Safe Harbor and other such agencies. What the church can provide is a community of faith that is shaped by the gospel. The church can be the community, working together with the many supporting agencies in the larger community, that a person needs if they are to be free from their poverty.

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