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Poverty has many faces.

Posted on 7/7/2008 9:33:51 AM
Author: Sheila Payne


Poverty has many faces.

I've been thinking a lot about poverty since reading Connie Bower's letter in the Sunday, June 1 Voice of the People.  Ms. Bower stated that "poverty is a personal choice – it's just that simple."  But it'snot that simple.  It's so complicated that after a week writing and re-writing and re-writing responses to Ms. Bower trying to explain poverty in a different way, I realized that I can't write that in a letter – it would take a book – and that all I can say is that having worked at the Center for the Homeless for the past five years, I've seen many, many different kinds of poverty.  Generational poverty is different from situational poverty.  Family poverty is different from the poverty an individual may face.  Working poverty is different from disabled poverty.

It's true that poverty often is the result of unfortunate choices, and that's something we talk about with the guests here at the Center.  But usually I don't have to tell a guest about bad choices – usually he or she tells me about choices.  "I dropped out of school and now I wish I hadn't."  "I knew I shouldn't have stayed in that relationship."  "I never should have left that job."  Our guests know about choices, and they own their choices.  They take responsibility for their choices.

The thing is, though, they don't stop there.  They also tell me about the choices they are making now.  "I'm working really hard in Adult Ed. right now because I'm scheduled to take the GED next month."  "He called me again but I told him I can't get involved right now, I have to focus on getting myself out of here."  "It feels so good to be working again." 

I'm proud of the choices these men and women make.

Beyond choices, though, we have to recognize that poverty is a huge, tough, complex social phenomenon.  It's not just about personal choices.  Sometimes it's about culture, sometimes it's about injustice, sometimes it's about social systems that just don't work … the choices that bring a person to poverty are made within an environment that often makes it difficult for a person to make the right choice.  That's not an excuse – it's just something that anyone interested in ending poverty must understand.  We can talk about personal choices and wash our hands of the problem, or we can work to understand why those choices are made, in hopes of changing our society to make the right choices clearer and more attainable.

As difficult as it is to understand poverty, it's near-impossible if you haven't had the opportunity to meet, know and understand a good number of the diverse individuals experiencing poverty.  So I'd like to invite Ms. Bower and everyone else in the Michiana community to come to the Center for the Homeless and meet the good, strong, honest people who are working to get themselves out of poverty.  Again, I am proud to know these people.  I am humbled to see how hard they work – harder than I've ever had to work in my life.  And I am honored to watch as they make new choices and change their lives.


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Comments .

Phil Wray said:

Absolutely! Poverty is no more a matter of simple choice than is being born into a wealthy family with all the opportunities that go along with that circumstance. To state that poverty is simply a choice assumes that people have complete control over every aspect of their environment. Yes, social situational environment often makes choices for us. For many, it isn't until one becomes an adult that they can begin to assume a greater degree of control over their lives. On the surface, it may appear that making good choices is the path to success. However, success is better defined as a measure of one's ability to overcome obstacles than it is a measure of what one has accomplished. Show me someone that has not had to overcome the kinds of obstacles that place people in abject and dysfunctional poverty as a child, and I will show you someone that would be a candidate for poverty had they not been blessed with a more fortunate beginning.

on 7/25/2008 4:28:42 PM

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