Is Poverty a Thang!?

Is Poverty a Thang!?

Recently, I decided to do some thorough investigation and research on poverty. I chose not to walk the hallowed halls of Notre Dame's prestigious library, nor did I trek across town to the Indiana University South Bend campus to spend quality time leafing through books and periodicals on the subject matter, but I chose, instead, to pull out my iPhone and googled the word... "Poverty."

What popped up on the screen were words that are alarming - "the state of being extremely poor," "abject poverty." The synonyms that were used were words like "penury, destitution, pauperism...beggary, indigence...neediness...hardship, impecuniousness..." The definition also stated that poverty is "the state of being inferior in quality or insufficient in amount."

Inferior and insufficient!? The listed synonyms appears to pronounce an indictment on the people who are cloaked and labeled “poverty," or "poor." You know what I mean? Its like the feeling you get when you swipe your debit card only to have the ATM machine scream "INSUFFICIENT FUNDS!!!"

Within the provided definition, many death wielding synonyms were used to describe poverty with such a visceral pronouncement, but only one word was used to describe its antonym. The word used is "wealth." Wealth is a far cry from “destitution." The imagery evoked juxtaposing the gap between both words is striking.

But is “poverty” a thing? Should this word be the focus of our attention while entertaining possible solutions? The word “Poverty” seems to be too big of a word to overcome and too big to get our arms around. It is too big, until we realize that “poverty” isn’t a thing within itself. But rather, poverty is a symptom.

There are multitudes of conditions that create this phenomena. Of course, the Individual's behavior is one of the conditions which can contribute to someone living in poverty and is often the first place we look for blame. But there are so many more powerful forces that have created and caused poverty.

To provide language to describe these forces, the health sector has adopted the term “Social Determinants of Health.” The determinants include genetics and individual behaviors. But also the determinants range from physical, social, and environmental conditions that impact the community.

Another term that is used, and I want to highlight, is the “Social Determinants of Equity.” For most of the symptoms of poverty experienced throughout the world, the origins can be traced back to some sort of inequity, some form of injustice, and some sort of political power play.

My wife had the opportunity to travel to a country whose borders contained many refugee camps, each filled with thousands of families with children. Invisible communities who relocated often underneath the threat of being found out, arrested, or kicked out. The only reason these families ended up in these camps were because of the genocide that was happening in the country from where they fled. Could you imagine how difficult it would be to get an education living in such conditions? It would be extremely difficult to obtain the basic needs for survival? The sense of security would be lost.

I gave this some considerable thought when, being interviewed for a local TV program, "Education Counts," I was asked about the relationship between education and poverty. Immediately I thought of a TED Talk presentation I saw a few years ago given by Bryan Stevenson, Director of the Equal Justice Initiative and Author of "Just Mercy." The entire presentation was moving and challenging. But he had made one statement that rang true. He stated, "the opposite of poverty isn't wealth...but rather, poverty is the opposite of justice." I went on to tell the interviewer how unjust it is for us not to be able to educate our children adequately, regardless of where they come from. We know that this type of educational injustice helps to create this symptom we call "poverty."

If we turn our gaze and efforts to addressing the root - systemic barriers to equity, hidden rules, policies and legislation designed to keep one in his or her place, then we will start seeing the symptoms dissipate. But hopefully, we will also notice the resiliency of those struggling and trodden down as they rise in the face of insurmountable barriers.

Earlier, I spoke of my wife's encounter with a refugee community bordering two countries. She told me many stories about the children. She was so moved by their hunger for education and deep desire to learn English. Although they did not know much about the West, they recognize the value of being able to communicate in English. English is considered to be a critical asset to have as a way of moving out of poverty for so many people around the world. The children she worked with could only read during the wee early hours of the day when it was still dark. But religiously, the children would get up every morning, sweep and clean the area where they were about to spend the next hour or so, and read... Their only light would be a candle. But candles weren't always available.

So...maybe the best way to get our arms around this bigger than life and elusive monster we call "Poverty" is not by ignoring the symptoms, but increasingly turn our gaze, focus, and energy addressing the root - injustices, implicit prejudice and bias, and the lack of respect and value for the human soul.


LeRoy King, Executive Director

St. Joseph County Bridges Out of Poverty