Four things you need to know about poverty

This is not your typical, picture-heavy happy post. It is rather emotional and word-heavy, so if you’re in for a bit of a reality check, please continue reading.  The last couple of days have felt real heavy in my heart. A few days ago, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop whose purpose was to help social service professionals understand poverty. 

For my day job, I work for a non-profit dedicated to providing vocational services to disadvantaged people, which means, we help people who live below the poverty line, people with mental and physical disabilities, people with histories of domestic and substance abuse, but at the end of the day, people. 

I went on long walks this week trying to digest the information. Some days I wake up and think about all the work I have to do to get to where I want to be. See, I get to define what success means to me. I get to decide where I work, where I shop and where my time and energy go.  Because of the many opportunities that have been available to me, I get to decide and work towards the life I want to have. But to people who have been denied those opportunities because of the their social and economic status, on a good day, success looks like clean water running through their faucets and a warm meal for dinner. 

As I listened to the personal stories on poverty, I thought to myself: that could have been me. That could have been me on my early days of career switching and not being able to find a job. That could have been me after my family moved and we were struggling to make ends meet. That could be me on any given day after tragedy strikes and I am estranged from my family and friends. That could be me if mental illness afflicts me and I am no longer able to work to pay my rent. Rather than seeing it from an outsider’s perspective, I thought about my own personal struggles and the times where the light at the end of the tunnel was not visible. 

Poverty is a social issue that society has been dealing with since the beginning of time. As much as I wished for hunger to end in my childhood prayers, I know it is something that is much more complex than just wishing people well. In an effort to share what I learned and spread awareness, I put together the main take aways from the workshop I attended. 

Poverty is not a personal failure

People are not poor because they don’t work hard enough. Generational poverty is due to geographic location or ethnicity. Oftentimes, poverty is passed down from generation to generation. When a person is born to one of these families, they lack the resources and knowledge to break out of the cycle, since everyone in their circle is affected by it. In other words, there is no light at the end of the tunnel simply because they don’t know that there is a tunnel. On the other hand, financial poverty in adulthood can also be the result of emotional scarcity during childhood. Our workshop leader mentioned that many people who grow up financially secure during childhood but emotionally impoverished are highly likely to struggle as adults. Emotional scarcity can happen due to a variety of reasons, such as mental illness in one of the parents, a loss in the family, divorce, etc. The causes of poverty are more complex than not having a job. 

Poverty affects the way the brain works

People in poverty live in a constant state of stress. Worrying about almost everything becomes the norm, with issues ranging from where their next meal is going to come from, whether they’ll have a safe place to sleep at night to taking care of ill family members, along with many others problems. This state of anxiety makes it impossible for people to think about things that the rest of us would normally worry about. If the most basic needs of food and shelter are not met, how can people think about contributing to society? How can kids concentrate and do well in school when they don’t know where they’ll spend the night? Our workshop leader mentioned that there are some scientific studies that show the link between growing up and cognitive development, which means that children who have trouble in school often come from families that are struggling financially. 

People experiencing poverty often lack more than just financial resources 

We tend to think that poverty is just a lack of money to pay the rent or buy food. However, in many situations, people experiencing poverty also find themselves isolated from their families or friends. So they are not just lacking money, but healthy human connection. Without supportive relationships, it’s almost impossible to break the poverty cycle. Think about it, if you lost your job today and were estranged from your social circle, how would you cope? Many impoverished people lack a healthy emotional network that the rest of us often take for granted. 

Poverty is expensive

Think about it from the standpoint of a business owner. If your business is wasting resources and as result you are losing revenue, is your business as profitable as it should be? The same happens with society. If community is experiencing a 25% poverty rate, that means that resources are being drained and human potential is being wasted. It is impossible to have a sustainable community unless poverty is addressed in more effective ways. 

I also learned that Tucson occupies 5th place in the US in terms of economic segregation. Tucson, we need to fix that!

While I don’t have all the answers to end poverty in our community, I can suggest some steps that you can take to help. Donate to your favorite non-profit, or if money is a bit tight, volunteer with an organization that helps the poor. Spend some time serving those that are less advantaged than you, and I assure you, you will see things differently. 

“The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love.” -Mother Theresa