I recently had the opportunity to hear jazz bassist Victor Wooten play at a club in my hometown, Oakland, California. 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 stuff, 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 even in my profession -- the business of supporting working American families -- most of my colleagues are focused on what's wrong in the communities we serve. We are constantly being told by every new study that stress 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 35 years of working in the social sector, I often feel that to stay "fresh" we invent new negative stereotypes to ascribe to "the poor." Yet, there are positive actions taking place every day across this country that are not seen or honored.
Last October, I attended an event with families from my organization, the Family Independence Initiative (FII). FII families shared the strides they made with hard work, access to resources, and the mutual support of friends and family. At the end of the night, 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 and love each other."
The point Victor and Torli both made is that society's perception of entire populations are often based on bad things that are actually the exception, rather than the rule, in their communities. We see this every day in conversations about Muslims, black Americans, or poor families in the US. That's why FII has been dedicated to collecting monthly data from working poor families over a period of years. Victor's ideas ring true in our data: data from FII families reveals tremendous drive and innovation in the face of obstacles or scarcity. The next time you see the statistic that there are "45 million people stuck in poverty" be skeptical about the word "stuck". It brings up images of "generational poverty," the "culture of poverty," and "welfare queens." It is an image that invokes helplessness.
Researchers and journalists use this phrase recklessly, and incorrectly. Census studies consistently indicate that the average stay in poverty for US families is only 6.6 months, NOT an entire generation. Only about 3.5% of those in poverty at the start of the study period remain in poverty for the full three years, in each of the studies done over the last decade. A more accurate depiction would tell us that more than 96% of those who clean our hotel rooms and wash our dishes work really hard and pay taxes every time they buy food and gas -- taxes which keep many local and state budgets solvent. This is a victory against incredible odds, not helplessness.
If 96% of families exit poverty within three years, why then does the percentage of those in poverty stay the same, about 15% or more? The answer: even if you fall below the poverty line for a month, you are counted in the 15%. The 6.6-month average indicates that falling into poverty is episodic -- not generational. If you look closely at the human stories behind this number, you will find that the dishwasher at your favorite restaurant may have his hours cut, or have his car break down...throwing his family, with no savings account or ability to get a loan, into crisis for about six months until his daughter gets a job, or his hours increase again. This six months of barely making ends meet will count him among the 45 million, not stuck in poverty, but having experienced it this year. What the same Census, and other studies, show is that 30% of those who worked so hard will fall back, even temporarily, under the poverty level in 3 years and in 5 years, 50% fall back. We are even losing middle class families in this "episodic" poverty.
The words "stuck" or even "in poverty" are telling us a false story. Researchers and policy advocates would be more accurate to say "45 million people cycled in and out of poverty at some point last year". And that most worked with incredible determination to return to washing our dishes and caring for our lawns. By doing so, they bought clothes and tools and fed tax dollars into our local and state economies. The country would then see that those at the bottom of our economic ladder do strive, dissolving stereotypes of the poor that feed racial and class-based distrust and resentment. With the real story before us, we should look at solutions, not to get the poor out of poverty -- they're already doing that -- but to help them rebuild our middle class.
Our first step in changing the way this country invests in working families is to see what Victor Wooten saw that night on the freeway. The thousands of people in cars doing the right thing.