Tuesday, January 17, 2006
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.