Welcome to PLACE’s five-part series on poverty. We hope to get you thinking about poverty differently, and by extension, those who are forced to live in poverty. And we also hope to explain PLACE’s complex and effective approach to alleviating poverty.
Above all, we hope to make it interesting. After all, who doesn’t love myth busting?
As our guide, we will be using the excellent series, Busted: America’s Poverty Myths from WNYC’s On the Media.
Our understanding of poverty in America is shaped not by facts, but by private presumptions, media narratives, and tall tales of the American Dream. Even if you’re poor (and almost no one thinks they are), you probably share our country’s discomfort with poor people, because you are a product of a culture steeped in very potent, but very wrong narratives about people who are poor. The intent of our series is to expose those myths and dismantle them.
Today, more than 45 million Americans live in poverty, many of them children. Recent research suggests we are making economic progress in that the rich are getting richer, the middle class appears to be mending and the poor are inching upward. However, our very low income households are worse off than ever.
Why is there more of a chance to get ahead in Canada and France than in America? Is the American Dream more real in Canada than the United States. The short answer is yes. The chance to work hard and get ahead in the “land of opportunity” is in fact a myth.
The truth is that poverty, like art, is a process, not a product. It is a complex interaction of social and economic interactions that strengthen the positions of those in power.
Nobel-prize-winner, Muhammad Yunus, an economist credited with the idea of microfinance, said, “I believe that we can create a poverty-free world because poverty is not created by poor people. It has been created and sustained by the economic and social systems that we have designed for ourselves; the institutions and concepts that make up that system; the policies that we pursue.”
Poverty is not simply caused by joblessness and low wages. It is also produced by high housing costs, for-profit colleges and predatory lending practices. Exploitation is not a word we use much any more, but data shows that many people and many industries are making a great deal of money off poor people.
But does it actually help to shine a light on this process, this complex system that churns out poor people the way a coal plant churns out pollution? It would appear not.
Instead of rushing to help our fellow Americans who are in trouble, we have enacted harsher policies that cut benefits and increase what is expected from poor people. And even as they are required to work off any benefits they receive, lower-income folks have become pariahs in our community. Frequently, neighbors complain to PLACE that they do not wish to live near “those people.” Not only are low-income people often denied the resources necessary to thrive, but they are denied the dignity that should be afforded to all Americans.
Much work has been done to increase empathy for the plight for the economically disadvantaged. Somehow, it has backfired. Maybe the harsh reaction from Americans is due to empathy, rather than lack of empathy.
Yale’s Paul Bloom argues that studies suggest that people actually trained to feel empathy for the lives of poor people ended up feeling worse and helping less. Whereas, when people were trained to feel love or compassion for people who are poor, it caused them to feel better and do more to help.
So, what we must do in our Talking About Poverty series is to engage our audience emotionally, not with empathy, but with compassion and love. Discuss the facts unflinchingly, while we explore our own attempt at transformational solutions.
PLACE is dedicated to building communities that welcome people of all incomes, all backgrounds, ages and abilities, people who yearn to be connected to each other, their community and their planet. We engage them in a community-building process that fosters meaningful connections with each other and their communities.
Our communities offer access to healthy homes for people of all incomes, nutritious food, education, jobs, affordable green energy, transportation, health care, and art, culture and inspiration. Because if poverty is a process that disempowers, exploits and holds people back, then our communities must be themselves a process to empower, respect and inspire people.
The next part in our series, Talking About Poverty, will discuss the myth that poverty stems from a lack of willpower, poor decision-making and a poor work ethic. We hope you will send us your thoughts.
Listen to Busted: America's Poverty Myths (Part One)
Chris Velasco is Co-founder & Executive Director of PLACE, a community builder specializing in sustainable places for the arts and economic development.