Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Poverty's Generations


Why does poverty breed so much "negative life," including more poverty?

Anyone who works among low-income persons and communities understands the oppressive, usually intractable nature of generational poverty. History helps our understanding as to why certain groups and cultures face more challenges than others.

We tend to focus on and then to celebrate the victories of those who "break out," who escape the life path inherited from their parents and ancestors. Such celebration is understandable, but anecdotal by comparison to the numbers still trapped in horribly predictable life outcomes.

Assuming that every individual has equal opportunity for success is not only a naive social perspective, it is so untrue as to be extremely damaging to individuals and to our larger society, especially when it over-informs public policy.

All men and women may be created equal, but all do not arrive in equal circumstances that provide equal opportunities for success, productivity and fulfillment. I know this realization flies in the face of a long-cherished part of American mythology.

The fact is poor, inner city children encounter challenges unique to their birth families, their communities and their cultural histories. Identifying these challenges and facing them with courage, honesty and intelligence will be key to seeing them mastered at a scale that can actually affect change among entire population groups.

W. H. Auden's poem, "September 1, 1939," contains this chilling line,

"I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return."

Fortunately, this is not always the case. In fact, and thankfully, most of the time it is not true if we are thinking of individual actions in response to evil experienced.

But evil done to people and to communities does have a way of continuing among the injured for a long time--often for generations. Auden speaks an important truth to those who really want to understand why the problems we know so well persist so often without interruption.

Significant social, public, political, emotional, educational, spiritual, community interventions and investments will be required to break the cycle. These interventions must be well-funded, patient, wise and long-term. Everyone must be involved in making the required investment in the future of our children, our cities and our nation.

There is no other way.

5 comments:

tine said...

i read your blog daily and i am always so convicted by the truth that you speak. my husband and i feel very strongly that the Lord has called us to urban ministry and we are so challenged and inspired by the work that you do. as an educator and as a mother, i seek any advice that you can give me for reaching out to those children that you speak about and especially for raising my own children with eyes that are open to the pain that exists in this world and hearts that are open to the compassion that EVERYONE deserves...thank you for your dedication to the dark corners of this world...I know this is where Jesus wants us all to go...

IBreakCellPhones said...

OT: I'd like to hear your perspective on this article about law school clinics.

Larry James said...

IBreakCellPhones, I have no way to evaluate this essay. I do know how our public interest law firm operates--we handle mainly family law matters involving custody cases and domestic violence. We also so routine legal work that our clients cannot afford.

In reading the article I kept wanting to see a case log for the legal clinics being evaluated. It may be true that these clinics did cases like these, but is that all they did?

Again, all I can speak to is the kind of public interest law we practice, which is much different than what this essay describes.

cierakae said...

Tine, What I have found to be the most effective way to reach out to the children (and adults) plagued by generational poverty is to share your life. Not as a role model, but by making them your friends. In doing this you broaden their awareness of possibilities. Education, financial stability, life decisions are gradually demystified. You remove the "us and them" barrier.

Anonymous said...

ibreakcellphones - have you ever considered the fact that any attempt to help the poor would be considered Left-wing bias by the conservative right? Just because the political "right" wants to take away the civil rights of the poor does not mean it is legally right.

The article says:


In the last few years alone, law school clinics have put the Berkeley, California, school system under judicial supervision for disciplining black and Hispanic students disproportionately to their population (yes, that’s Berkeley, the most racially sensitive spot on earth); sued the New York Police Department for its conduct during the 2004 Republican National Convention; fought “gentrification” (read: economic revitalization) in “neighborhoods of color” in Boston, New Haven, and New York; sued the Bush administration for virtually every aspect of its conduct of the war on terror; and lobbied for more restrictive “tobacco control” laws.


Have you ever considered that those are all, in fact, just arguments? Just because conservatives find them annoying does not mean that they are wrong; it simply means that not all lawyers are willing to let these sorts of illegal activities continue:

- racist discipline systems
- police oppression of civil discourse and political dissent
- displacing the poor from places where they can get jobs and access to support services (i.e. economic revitalization by kicking out the poor)
- Bush's illegal wiretapping, among other attrocities

So, yes, maybe these free law clinics did this. Would you stop them? It's a shame that college kids will stand up for justice more than the legal elite of the world.

- jg