There are fundamental flaws in how issues of poverty and socio-economic mobility are being addressed in this country and the world. Over the next two months, I will post a series on HuffPo to share both my experiences growing up poor in America as well as what has been learned from hundreds of other families who have shared their stories with the organization I founded, the Family Independence Initiative (FII).
My goal? To help spark a new conversation about poverty in this country and ways to support people escape it, not just survive it. This first posting will speak to the invisible efforts of the most resourceful part of our society, those making up the bottom 2/5ths of our economy.
Last year, I had the opportunity to hear jazz bassist Victor Wooten play at a club in my hometown of Oakland, Calif. His performance had the entire audience singing and clapping. Before he began his last piece, he said something along the lines of, “I travel all around the world and I meet wonderful people, like you, everywhere. But when you read the newspapers you read about the bad stuff, the bad people. That is what makes news; that is what people pay attention to. It makes the world seem like a bad place. We don’t pay enough attention to the good things people do, to the people that don’t cross the street as they walk towards me. When someone cut me off on the freeway in Oakland I heard ‘well, that’s Oakland for you!’ But what about the other thousand cars passing by doing the right thing?”
Victor’s comments stayed with me. His words resonate because most of my government and non-profit colleagues who work on poverty issues, are focused on what’s wrong in the communities we serve. We are constantly being told through a new study that scarcity means that families can’t make good decisions, and that low-income parents don’t say enough words to their children to bolster literacy skills.
After thirty-five years of working in the social sector, I often feel that to stay “fresh” we invent new negative stereotypes to ascribe to “the poor.” While well-intentioned, too often, we make them appear as victims not capable of helping themselves or doing the right things. They become the subjects of our fund-raising and top-down social engineering. We use their plights to raise dollars from the wealthy who might give, out of a sense of guilt and pity.
At the end of the day, we’re simply making poverty survivable and tolerable but not doing enough to make it escapable.
However, what FII has learned is that rather than turning to social programs families do best when they come together with friends and peers. We have been tracking hundreds of families on a monthly basis and when FII encourages them to come together, even by just paying for the food or space if they self-organize a meeting, we see that families not only learn from one another but they become each other’s support system.
At a meeting organized by a group of FII-Boston families, one of the members, Torli Krua, approached me and said, “You have to start an FII in Liberia and other countries there. When people hear about Africa all they hear is about wars, disease, hunger, and helpless people. They never hear how my people survive all that and still help, build, and love each other.”
The point Victor and Torli both made is that society’s perception of entire populations is often based on bad things like the angry driver, that are actually the exception not the rule. We’re looking at people through the wrong lens. We hear these distorted perceptions every day in conversations about Muslims, Black Americans, or poor families in the U.S. Our first step in changing the way this country invests in our lowest income families is to see what Victor Wooten saw that night on the freeway.
The thousands (actually millions) doing the right thing.
In July of 2015, I attended the Clinton Global Initiative America conference. In his address, Julián Castro, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), cited a recent report revealing that there is currently no place in the entire United States where a family living on minimum wage could afford a two-bedroom apartment, and only a couple places where they could afford a one-bedroom place.
Secretary Castro might use this study to make us feel guilty and to lobby Congress to provide more funding to HUD. Obviously well-intentioned but we can’t ignore the way that families are resourceful on their own.
The reality is that most of the families he was referring to actually do live in one and two-bedroom units. How are they doing it? In the same way my family and most very low-income families do it. By working more than one job and having informal side businesses driving Uber or sewing dresses, as my mother used to do.
Sharing that information would begin to challenge views, on the right and the left, that these families are lazy or victims to be saved. They are saving themselves against all odds. Rather than a study to make society feel guilty, what if we surfaced the resourcefulness of these families and pushed HUD and philanthropists to invest in that resourcefulness, that initiative instead of just programs. Armed with this data, this new information, we could fundamentally change our helping system from its focus on filling a “need gap” to a focus on what families are already doing and scale those home grown efforts.
In a subsequent posting, I will share more about the contributions that those at the bottom of our economy make to society. About the thousands who are doing the right thing and how that initiative can ripple out much faster than any policy we might pass or program we might design.