This is an interesting question.
There are many aspects to poverty and thousands of pitfalls on the road out of poverty. Poverty Survivors aren’t JUST homeless people and those who manage to establish a lifestyle that appears to be ‘out of poverty’ often face a lifetime of problems stemming directly from their experiences below the middle class financial line.
Put another way, there are financial, legal, political and CULTURAL aspects to poverty in the United States. As a single, average, middle/upper class citizen there are a few things that can be done to establish a lifestyle that supports the poor.
I would suggest beginning with the culture of class and caste in the United States. Creating a lifestyle that challenges the systems that support (and even require) poverty and abuse is both admirable and achievable.
How is this done?
Here are a few suggestions for starting points:
- Challenge prejudices. We have a deeply embedded common-belief that there are deserving poor and non-deserving poor. The definition of deserving is frequently based on actions and personality traits that have nothing to do with an individual’s character or positive actions. Instead, it is heavily focused on entertaining or serving ‘better’ (upper class) people. Take some time to sit down and write out all of the ways that you know a poverty survivor is deserving of assistance. include everything – your opinions, your parents opinions, things you’ve heard, etc. After exhausting every possibility, sit back and take a look. Based on my own experiences, the reality of surviving poverty involves living up to the requirements detailed here: Deserving VS Undeserving Poor After you’ve given the list a good look, try to identify how many of these things you could live up to yourself. How many are realistic? How many are even applicable to the question ‘should this person be helped?’ Devote some thought to this. Discuss it with your friends.
- Challenge hate crimes: Hate crimes come in many forms. For poverty survivors who have managed to secure a job and move up in the financial castes, the most common crime is vicious gossip and bullying. People talk. Some people just can’t pass up the opportunity to take ‘facts’ and use them to kick someone in the teeth. When information is provided to a landlord, a person can find themselves looking for a new apartment. When it’s provided to a manager, they can find themselves looking for a new job. When it’s provided to everybody (co-workers, people on the street, members of a religious community) they can find themselves looking for a friend. This devastating information can be something as simple as the neighborhood of a former address (read: lived in a rough or poor area), a period of homelessness (no matter how brief), or a period on welfare (no matter how brief). I personally have had experiences from my childhood/teen years (all of which were completely beyond my control) thrown in my face 20-30 years after the fact – and the person(s) doing the throwing was clearly convinced the action was not only justified, it was necessary (read: protecting the ‘good’ people from the ‘bad’ people who are trying to pass themselves off as ‘good’). I have witnessed this happening to others in every situation imaginable. If you see this behavior, challenge it. Use your standing as a ‘good’ person to confront other ‘good’ people about their unethical and…frankly…potentially illegal behavior. (Note: a landlord and an employer can find reasons to get rid of someone, they don’t have to admit to their prejudices. Just because their real reason isn’t legitimate doesn’t mean they can’t arrange for the individual’s dismissal or removal.)
- Check your behavior. The experience that will most clearly illustrate the CULTURAL aspects to the financial caste system in the United States is being associated with someone who has a fall from grace – they slip below the ‘acceptable financial line’ and drop right into poverty. Homelessness is the most severe and, therefore, most telling scenario. What do you do when someone you know is facing homelessness. I’ve examined this scenario in depth here (fair warning, this blog post is long and detailed): How To Help Someone Facing Homelessness . Take some time to seriously consider this scenario and your own knee-jerk reactions. What would you do if a friend or relative was facing homelessness? Why? What are your immediate assumptions about the individual immersed in a financial crisis? Is it their fault? Does it prove they are untrustworthy? A criminal? Discuss this with others. Consider changing your re-actions when faced with the reality.
That’s a start.
Honestly, this warrants in-depth research and a detailed program similar to those currently utilized to challenge racism and homophobia. There are workshops, training programs and discussion groups geared toward addressing, challenging and dismantling the cultural mores that cause and/or enforce racism and homophobia. Some of them are very effective. To the best of my knowledge, nothing similar exists for poverty and financial caste systems. Maybe someday someone will create such a thing