Poverty in America during the 1950s and 1960s was simply ignored in our wealth-burgeoning society. I was not alone in my ignorance. “[In fact, it’s been more than 50 years] since Americans, or at least the non-poor among them, ‘discovered’ poverty, thanks to Michael Harringtton’s engaging book The Other America.” (Twisting the Phrase “Culture of Poverty” Barbara Ehrenreich March 16, 2012).
The seldom acknowledged poor were mentally relegated to the ghettos and backwoods of American society. In reality the poor were right here among us. I know. They still are. I’ve met them and listened to their stories. I’ve written about them and am still writing about them.
I’ve encountered poverty vicariously through the stories of those who lived it. Some of my adult friends and acquaintances grew up in this invisible world―one where being poor was an accepted part of life for those who were there. They didn’t want to be there or ask to be there. It was just their lot. It was a tough way to grow up, but they made the most of what little they had. Some didn’t realize that they were poor, until someone from an upper class pointed out their obvious lacks. Some thought they were pretty well off, even a bit superior, when they met someone who had less. Some even took opportunity to lord their newly-discovered social superiority over those less fortunate. Regrettably, this ill-conceived notion of being superior to others continues to exist throughout the rungs of society’s class-based ladder.
What about the children?
As an elementary and middle-school teacher (currently retired), I have witnessed the direct effects of poverty’s aftermath on kids. What hit me the hardest was the way those who were among the “haves” would ignore, belittle or bully the “have-nots.” Don’t be disheartened, though. I’ve seen students, teachers, counselors, librarians, volunteers, administrators, parents, as well as church group and other community members who have made and are still making a difference in the lives of the poor and “different” among us.
How to make a difference?
Treat those who are different with dignity, respect and kindness. Get to know them in a personal way. Point out their strengths and talents. Encourage them to participate in activities and programs where they can showcase those strengths and talents. None of this can be done from a distance or simply by giving money to a cause. Of course, that is important, too. If we really want to make a difference, it’s got to be one-on-one. That could mean offering a smile, a friendly and sincere “Hi, how are you?” or a simply lending a listening ear.
Same old story?
[N]ew study from The National Poverty Center shows that the number of U.S. households living in extreme poverty (defined here as less than $2 a day per person) more than doubled from 1996 to 2011. The number of extremely poor children also doubled during that time, from 1.4 million to 2.8 million. (Extreme Poverty Down Globally, Up in U.S., Lauren Feeney, March 7, 2012)
Since the 1960s, poverty programs have abounded. And yet, the poor are still with us. In fact, as we see poverty diminishing globally, poverty is ever-increasing in America. Meanwhile, not much has changed in society’s concept or treatment of the poor in their plight:
“Poverty, it seems, is largely invisible to middle class people in the United States. Their knowledge of the basic facts and insights mentioned above is extremely limited. Here the problem isn't research or pedagogy. It is clear enough how the Detroit Free Press or the Atlanta Constitution could present the basic facts about national or regional poverty on a clear and understandable form. Instead, the problem seems to be a cognitive version of myopia. The social circumstances that confront us up close, and that are likely to influence our basic interests, get our focused attention. But all too often, more distant social problems don't get a second look. And this seems all too often to be the case for poverty.” (Understanding Society, Knowing Poverty April 9, 2008)
Here we stand as a nation in 2013 still threatened by The Great Recession. For middle-class citizens, our immediate social problems revolve around the American economy and what we can do to make our individual lives better, or, at the very least, keep ourselves from spiraling downward into poverty. Still, we manage to hold the poor off at a distance. We surely don’t want to be counted among them.
A time for change?
Fortunately antipoverty programs are coming to the forefront in America once again. Journalist Greg Kaufmann (The Nation) shares some encouraging words:
“This past year I’ve had the opportunity to cover the antipoverty movement — and I do believe it’s a movement — it’s just a little too much of a well-kept secret right now.
“But I think in 2013, the people and groups at the forefront of antipoverty thinking and action are poised to reach a much wider audience, and gain far greater popular support.
“That’s in part because the movement is led by organizations and individuals who have been fighting poverty for decades, and they offer solutions that are grounded in empirical data and the everyday experiences of millions of working Americans and families.
“In contrast, the opposition to antipoverty reform relies largely on tired stereotypes, myths and prejudices — that low-income people are lazy and don’t want to work; that they only want handouts, or to live off of welfare; that antipoverty policies have failed; and, most recently, that we can’t afford these investments.
“But an economy that is short on opportunity and concentrates wealth in the hands of a few is coming into focus. The interests of low-income people and a shrinking middle class are converging — everyone wants fair pay, a shot at a good education and an economy defined by opportunity and upward mobility.”
Bette A. Stevens is a retired teacher and the author of three books: Stevens’s latest book, PURE TRASH is a short story about a nine-year-old poor boy’s Saturday adventure in rural New England during the 1950s, written for the YA/adult audience. Through PURE TRASH, the author explores prejudice, class division, alcoholism, poverty, injustice and bullying. This story is a prequel to her upcoming novel. Readers can find out more about Stevens and her books at http://www.Amazon.com/author/betteastevens