How poverty becomes a trap

Oct 12, 2005 at 12:00 am

I don’t usually answer readers’ letters in my column, but a letter I received a couple of weeks ago warrants being one of the exceptions. It was in response to a column about Hurricane Katrina and how that ongoing catastrophe has disproportionately affected the area’s poor.

A reader posed what I had to admit was a very good question, a question that a lot of folks probably want to know the answer to but may be afraid to ask for fear of sounding uncaring, racist or whatever. Personally, I’ve always believed that it makes a lot more sense to ask if you’re curious, than just to assume something based on an unnecessary shortage of information.

I had written: “Many of these folks have been dirt-poor for generations and, as one of my Metro Times colleagues pointed out last week, much of America was introduced for the first time to a group of people who don’t have bank accounts, don’t have phones, don’t have a lot of things that most of us take for granted. They lived in virtual shacks, but these shacks were their homes.”

In response, the reader had the following question:


I would really like to read your thoughts on why these folks have been dirt-poor for generations. I would like to know how entire families can exist without one single person owning a car (which they could have used to get the hell out of Dodge).

Did the New Orleans public schools fail them? Why were they not motivated enough to go to school, to look for work, to better themselves? Of course I don’t blame them; I don’t live in their situation and judgment would be impossible. If my home were swept away I would probably be helpless too. But these are questions that are on some people’s minds.

Public schools and libraries are free. It’s not Bush’s fault, or his idiotic mother with her idiotic comments, that these people have been poor for generations. He’s only been around for five years; he didn’t make them poor or take their cars away. I’m really curious to know how so many people in New Orleans could be so poor and seem so helpless while others had the means to evacuate.

Do you think that when large numbers of poor people live in one area, it fosters an atmosphere of desperation and despair? Do they just give up? I’ve known many people who have lost their jobs or fallen on hard luck, but they always pick themselves up and move on. Do you suppose it’s because they live in “good” areas?


So maybe he had more than just one question. But the overall gist is asking why some poor people can’t seem to do better for themselves when there are so many examples of well-known — and not-so-well-known — individuals who’ve risen up out of poverty and found numerous ways to hurdle the barriers that have been tossed in their way.

Why are poor people so damned helpless?

That may be a harsh question, and I may not be the most qualified to answer it as completely as such a question deserves to be answered — I was not born poor myself — but I’ll do my best.

First, I don’t believe the poor are as helpless as some folks think. If folks knew the unimaginable survival skills it requires for a truly poor parent to raise a family in America, then the word “helpless” would not be used to describe them at all. Many poor people have learned how to help themselves because they have come to realize that they can only depend on themselves to make it. So they do whatever they have to do.

The thing about poverty that I don’t think many better-off individuals can completely grasp is that it’s all-encompassing, that degradation can reach and destroy so many areas of a person’s life. The worst thing poverty does is take away — or at least severely limit — life choices, because when you’re poor you’re living in survival mode. That means pretty much every minute of every day is spent figuring out how to make it until the next day without crashing.

Poverty limits where a kid can go to school, and if the kid didn’t have anything to eat before going to school then it affects the learning process, which in turn may affect whether the kid will go any farther than high school — if that far. That, of course, causes limited job opportunities, which limits income opportunities, which limits where a person can live. It also affects the quality of health care, which is why so many poor people have severe health issues that too often are addressed too late — if ever.

Poverty limits the kind of car a family can buy — if a car is affordable at all. Just look at how much auto insurance costs in Detroit, the nation’s poorest big city. Look at how much of a down payment is often required for a car, particularly if your credit is shot, which is easy to do if you have to juggle bills the way poor folks do. Where’s that money supposed to come from if you’re only working some little piece of a job — or aren’t working at all? And if you get a junk car, you’ll have to pay more for repairs, and you’re still supposed to have insurance, even though a huge number of Detroiters are driving with none whatsoever. The same has been no true, no doubt, in New Orleans.

Another problem with poverty is that most poor folks only know other poor folks and only live around other poor folks. Their families are poor. Their friends are poor. So if they get caught in a serious bind, they can’t call rich Uncle John or that good buddy who’s so loaded. They’re either just stuck, or they’re stuck arguing, begging and crying to a bill collector about why the lights shouldn’t be cut off again because you promise you’ll have the money soon. You don’t know how, yet, but you’ll get it.

Like a whole lot of people I’ve had more than a few run-ins with being broke and wondering how I was going to pay the rent, how I was going to keep the lights on, the water on, etc. Even though that’s no fun, I can always fall back on the advantages I had growing up — such as a good education. I also have friends and family who have access to resources. I know a lot of people who know a lot of other people who can tell me where to go or who to see to straighten a particular situation out. Many of these people I’ve met as a direct result of my education and my upbringing.

As tough as things have sometimes gotten, I’ve usually — though not always — been able to concoct some sort of patchwork backup plan that could keep me and mine from falling off the edge and into the abyss. I’ve sometimes had to remind myself — and Katrina forced me to — that I still have access to resources that so many of the evacuees never, ever had.

Ever heard the saying, “The rich are different from you and me”? Well the same can be said about the poor. Are there poor idiots and poor lazy people who don’t do as much for themselves as they could? Sure. And my guess would be that the proportion of those idiots and lazy folks to the overall poor population would be shockingly close to the proportion of rich idiots and rich lazy folks walking around. No one socioeconomic group has a monopoly on degenerates. Have some poor folks turned their lives around and left poverty behind? Absolutely. But to say that all poor folks should be able to raise themselves up because of a few success stories is like saying that all aspiring football players will have no excuse if they don’t make it to the NFL.

Jesus said the poor will always be with us. I don’t think it’s because they like it like that.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit editor, writer and musician. Send comments to [email protected]