Talking Poverty

Posted Nov. 11, 2010, at 5:14 p.m.

If you’ve ever been evicted from rental housing, gone to bed in your winter coat because there was no heat, slept in your car for weeks at a time, or skipped supper and eagerly awaited the breakfast school provided, you have lived in poverty. Too few people born in poverty have been able to cross the broad gulf into middle class America. Donna Beegle, who spoke last month in Portland at the annual Affordable Housing Conference hosted by MaineHousing, is one who made it. So is Gov.-elect Paul LePage.

Ms. Beegle was born to a family of six children, and parents who followed agriculture jobs around the West Coast. Her father became an alcoholic, and when the drinking worsened, so did the family’s plight. Despite dropping out of high school at 15 and having a baby at 17, she now holds a doctorate in education. Today, she heads up Communication Across Barriers, a consulting firm that helps social service workers, educators and other professionals learn to speak to those in poverty.

The ability to speak and be heard, to listen and understand, for both middle-class professionals and those living in poverty will be an incredibly important skill if Maine is able to successfully transform its social service support systems for leaner times. Being stingier with benefits for the poor was a cornerstone of Mr. LePage’s platform, with a particular emphasis on cutting off those who don’t really need the help. Tough love may save a little state money, but it could create deeper, and ultimately costlier, social problems. A more intelligent approach that offers a legitimate ladder out of poverty must be part of the solution. And part of that is being able to communicate with those in poverty.

What middle-class people mistake for indolence may in fact be hopelessness; what sounds like a request for a hand-out may actually be a plea for help in finding the way out. Until both groups use the same language, little will change, Ms. Beegle argues.

She uses an activity in her seminars that illustrates the divide between the middle class and those in poverty. She has everyone line up, side by side, then begins asking questions. If your mother graduated from college, take a step forward. If you’ve ever had your electricity turned off, take a step back. If you’ve taken a family vacation, step forward; if you’ve visited a parent in jail, step back. The exercise dramatically reveals that gulf between poverty and middle class.

Ms. Beegle says Americans tend to internalize their poverty. Immigrants arrive here believing anything is possible, while those in multigenerational poverty believe they will never make it because they lack some character trait. Americans tend to blame those in poverty and judge them by what they don’t own. Instead, we should ask ourselves what our lives would have been like if our parents were uneducated, unskilled and impoverished.

The social safety net must remain, but a wise investment would build ladders out of poverty. Those designing those ladders must first understand what the world looks like to those in poverty.

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