Blog Action Day 2008: Poverty


Today is Blog Action Day 2008, which is when a bloggers around the world focus on one issue with the hope of attracting attention to it and, maybe, changing it. This year’s topic is poverty and few topics in this world or the next get my attention and raise my ire more than poverty. I’ve been there and done that.

Let me start by clarifying that last statement. I’ve done poverty, lived in poverty, BUT, my poverty and the poverty this post will focus on is “American Style” poverty. What that means is I’ve never lived in a garbage dump scrounging rotten fruit for food like a pack of children I have pictures of in Guatemala City, Guatemala. I’ve never walked down a street naked because I literally did not own any clothes like some of the children my former pastor saw on the streets of Mumbai, India. In America, our HOMELESS, the bottom of the economic ladder, are STILL exponentially wealthier than MILLIONS of people across this world. Poverty “American Style” is a dream to MILLIONS of Indians, Chinese, Latin Americans, Aboriginal Australians, Africans, and countless, countless others in the Third World. Let’s keep everything in perspective.

Having said that, the knowledge that others in the world are far more miserable than you is ice cold comfort to a five year old child whose father has abandoned him and whose mother is desparately trying to keep herself and her son fiscally afloat with a tenth grade education, a textile plant job, $125 a week salary, and $20 per month child support. That was me in 1977. I’ve endured lights being cut off, phones being cut off, and groceries being one bag with bread and peanut butter. I still love peanut butter to this day, but I will not touch ketchup. If you ever eat a ketchup sandwich on stale bread, not because you want to but because you have to, you might develop a similar loathing.

From the time I was in K5 until the summer between my eighth and ninth grade years, we moved all over Hell and half of Georgia (technically, it was South Carolina, but it doesn’t sound the same). We lived with my dad’s parents (hey ladies, how many of you would live with your EX-INLAWS?), my mom’s dad, my mom’s cousin, some family down in Columbia . . . we just sort of bounced all over. Finally, my dad’s parents decided I needed a stable place to live so the summer before I started high school, they bought us a 1964 Fleetwood Special mobile home.

Nota Bene: I’ve lived 95% of my life in a trailer. Please remember that if you are around me at a conference and decide to make a remark about “trailer trash.” We TT don’t appreciate those who don’t know what it means to be TT calling us TT.

Anyway, the place was a palace to us. It was 15’x50′. No heat, no central air. We had a window unit and a kerosene heater that we couldn’t use because me and Mama both had asthma. I remember more than one January morning contemplating if I really wanted to get out from under the covers in my bedroom when I could see my breath and make a dash for the unheated bathroom. I’ve got a jillion stories about that place and those times, but I’ll save them and try to keep this post on target.

Poverty is a crippler. For example, people look at you differently once you get labeled white trash. I was in all honors courses in high school, graduated second in my class, was a National Merit Semi-Finalist, had a measured 140 IQ, made a 1380 on the SAT when that score actually meant something, blah, blah, blah . . . I was a smart kid. Still, I remember being treated a little differently because I was almost always the poorest person in the honors classes. I also remember my AP English teacher glaring at me the night of graduation and saying, “You don’t deserve HALF the honors you’ve gotten! You’re trailer trash and you’ll never amount to anything.”

Pardon my French, but she was damn near right.

I was the first person in my family, both sides, to graduate high school with 12 grades. Everyone else in my AP classes kept getting letters from colleges. They had everything planned out. Several were legacies at this school or that university. Everyone kept asking me where I was going. I told them I was going to work after Senior Week at the beach, if I survived Senior Week (again, a story for another time). I had no idea how to apply to college, how to pay for college, or why I needed college. I didn’t understand the mindset. It wasn’t that Mama didn’t value my education — she did. She was, and is, insanely proud of me. She was just too busy keeping a roof over my head and food in my stomach to worry about a college fund.

So, twenty years later I have an AA, a BA, and an MLIS. I work in education. I drive a Honda Element. I still live in a trailer. Not a double wide either. See, here’s the thing, and before you criticize me, email me and I’ll tell you stories I don’t have time or space to tell here, a part of me never left that 15×50 unheated trailer. If I ever get to meet Ruby Payne in person, I swear I want to walk up to her and kiss her right square on the mouth because the books she wrote for professional development are like my life story. Case in point, no savings. People from poverty don’t save, they spend. If you save it, it may get gone.

That’s a hard mindset to break. I still haven’t really broken it. I still have an extreme dislike for people I perceive as “being rich” or “acting rich.” I am very uncomfortable in ritzy social settings because I have no idea which fork to use and I feel everyone is watching me. Growing up, we used one fork for every course . . . the beans and the franks . . . and more times than not it was plastic. I will never consider a job at a school that serves an upper class population. I’ve been looked down on my whole life; why the blazes do I want some kid’s lawyer daddy and doctor mama looking down their nose at me at a parent Open House?

I’m not proud of my impoverished roots (although I am damn proud of my mama for keeping us going when she could have left me with my grandparents and gone out and had a life . . . my mama was a fine looking woman) but I can’t get away from them no matter how hard I try. Part of me goes to work every day with the sole purpose of proving that teacher on graduation night wrong.

Look, I’ll try and wrap this up as best I can. I shouldn’t have even tried posting about this topic because it is way to raw and viscerally emotional for me to deal with outside my therapist’s office. But since I have, here’s my point: it is extremely hard for a child who doesn’t know what, if anything he’s going to eat for supper, or where he’s going to lay his head, to give a tiny little damn about your pretty planned collection, your shiny computers, or your “book learnin'”. A girl who has to keep house and her three younger siblings while her mother works (or parties, you never know) is going to be a Child Left Behind no matter WHAT the godforsaken federal law says. You can’t expect a child who has to act like an adult, basically BE an adult, to settle down and do what you say just because you’re older than him or her.

Final thought . . . poverty is brutal, even “American Style” poverty. Thousands of your kids are living in that brutal poverty RIGHT NOW. If the economy tanks worse, even more kids will be there. Homeless and hopeless is a Hell of a way to live for anyone, but it’s almost insurmountable for a child.

Yeah, I got out . . . or did I?

Once again . . . poverty is BRUTAL and ALL CONSUMING and ALL AROUND YOU.

What are you going to do about it? Yes, you, reading this blog entry.

Congress won’t do spit, the President either. NO CALVARY IS COMING for these children.

What are you going to do about it?

6 responses »

  1. @ Dr. Payne and Dr. Smith!
    OMG!!! one of my favorite authors and her co-author commented on my blog! By NAME. Sorry, but no one will ever know how I felt when Budge came home from a pro-dev day and handed me Framework for Understanding Poverty and said, “Honey, I think you should read this.” I read the whole book then sat down and cried like a baby because I saw the reasons I did and do so many of the things I do. Not all of which are good for me. I would love to work with aHa in getting the message about poverty out to a broader audience. Dr. Payne, you wrote my life story and didn’t even know it.

  2. Your description of your life growing up in poverty and struggling your way out of poverty is one strong voice! Thank you for telling your story, and asking the big question – what are we going to do about poverty in the U.S.? My name is Terie Dreussi Smith, MA.ED. I co-authored Bridges Out of Poverty with Ruby K. Payne, PhD and Philip DeVol. As you know, Dr. Payne’s seminal work is A Framework for Understanding Poverty. I want to be there when you meet Ruby!

    I think of the words of Kozol, who describes how children in poverty are expected to reach above missing ladder rungs just to get a decent education in the U.S. We get a warm fuzzy feeling when someone pulls their way up out of poverty due to their gifts, talents, hard work and intelligence. Well, most of us do, perhaps with the obvious exception of your AP English teacher.

    The secret, ugly paradigm prevalent in the U.S. is that kids in poverty should somehow be willing and able to do this with their own raw strength. If you understand the concrete experience of poverty, especially generational poverty, you realize how unrealistic this paradigm is. Kozol remarks that the fact is that most kids in the U.S. do not have to be “superhuman” to get a good education. For kids steeped in poverty, being “superhuman” may be the only option.

    Phil and I have adapted Dr. Payne’s work to the community level in the book Bridges Out of Poverty. I thought you would be interested since you asked “what are we going to do about poverty?” Bridges Out of Poverty is working with a growing number of community initiatives in the U.S. to end poverty. One key principle is that people in poverty must be next to us at the table to do that. We need people in poverty in the arenas of decision-making at the policy level. Why should it be that only the “better offs” who share the big picture and design policy? People often ask us how in the world that will ever happen.

    Philip DeVol has developed a workgroup curriculum for people who are in poverty. “Getting Ahead in a Just-Getting -By World” is very unique in that it is co-investigative- no one is told what to do or think. It’s ironic that it should be “unique” to have a process that does not tell people in poverty what they should do.

    The Bridges Out of Poverty concepts concerning the hidden rules of class, that people in poverty have strengths and resources, that organizations and communities need to appreciate the problem solving skills of those in poverty are “laid out on the table” throughout the Getting Ahead process. It is the first step that many people in poverty need to access a positive future story.

    One Getting Ahead group participant told us she came into the group thinking, “What good is this group? Poverty is the hand I’ve been dealt”. When she realized her community was working with her to “feed her future story”, and had actually set up allies for her through a program called “Circles” (see, she began to see that she could move out of poverty. She was willing to do the painful work of analyzing her own resources to identify her strengths. She worked with her group to sketch out what the community resources looked like from the perspective of poverty. She decided to throw in that “bad hand” and work toward a better future, not just for herself, but for others. And it is working for her and many others. The Getting Ahead program evaluation shows that for every 10 participants who complete the group, 3 want to “get to the table” to do something about poverty in their community. The end product of Getting Ahead is so valuable to these communities they pay people a living wage to participate in the groups.

    Another important aspect of our work is that the “table” is a group of community leaders from all classes and races, working to create wealth for the community at all levels. How we get to that point, and how we encourage relationships of mutual respect are part of the process and “aha moments” that result from the key constructs of Bridges Out of Poverty. The communities that use Bridges, Getting Ahead and Circles are not waiting for policy change to do great things. They are doing great things NOW, advocating for policy change, and working on community systemic change. Poverty is greater than the choices of the poor. Can we stop fighting about the causes of poverty so that we can do something about ending it? Please see our “Platform for Economic Justice”, a free download at

    You would be a wonderful facilitator for a Getting Ahead in A Just-Getting-By-World in group in your community. If you are interested in doing something about poverty at the community level, please visit us at I did not write this to market our materials. I wrote it in the spirit of sharing “the how”- what we are doing about poverty- today and every day. It is not a hand-out, it is only partially a “hand-up”. It is all of our hands working together.

  3. Poverty- I was there, just not in it. I saw it first hand on the tobacco farms of the rural South of the 1960’s and beyond. It is also in my blood. Daddy was the second oldest of nine children. He quit school in the eighth grade to support the family after granddaddy died. He sharecropped until he was sixteen, and then lied about his age to get a job at the mill and also to join the guard. He swore he would never eat another lima bean as long as he lived and he will not. Grandma had an outhouse until I was about eight. The walls were International Paper Company cardboard. She was tenacious and hard and bitter. But, Daddy and his siblings emerged as strong adults, albeit with issues. Daddy married Momma. (They would have disinherited her but she was an only child.) Her people had land and he tripled her part. I believed myself to be priviledged. God forgive me, but I am sure I looked down my nose at the poor kids. Daddy thinks my storytelling and reading made up stories are a waste of time. But, I think he is proud of my education. Since Momma died he has become frugal again. He reuses tinfoil and plastic bags. But he can always afford to buy a good mule. That which does not kill us makes us stronger. By the way, I work in a Title I school and live on the piece of land granddaddy lost to taxes sometime before his death in 1946.

  4. Loved your blog about poverty and if I ever get to meet you, I will kiss you on your lips! Thank you for your honesty and your comments – particularly the one about a part of you always stays in poverty. I agree. I still do not have a clear answer on which parts people keep. It seems to be different for each person. Keep on with the clarity. As a friend of mine said, “Poverty is a foreign land – little understood but often judged.”

  5. TT? So noted–I hope I have never done that to you.

    I was an IGNORED high school junior/senior who was totally disregarded by guidance counselors, despite honors classes and great grades too. But I think it was b/c I had so many brothers and sisters–the GC were tired of all the “Lloyd” children by the time I came through. I was never asked about college or if i needed to sign up for the SAT, and believe it or not, almost every year they tried to put me in what was the middle level-not advanced. I was only changed when my middle level teachers realized I did not write or quiz like the rest in my class. There were years where I just slipped under anyone’s radar and tuffed it out in the second level classes (acing them easily.) After all who was I to question my placement? With 6 brothers and sisters, I never thought I would be able to go to college anyway, and so after graduation in 81, took a year off before enrolling in nursing school so my sister and I could take the same classes at a tech school. I worked at a fast food restaurant to pay my way through school–and I commuted in a “kids” car that required two gallons of water a day, one for halfway to Rock Hill, and one for half way home to Lancaster. My mom tells me now that if I had asked about going away to school, they would have made it happen one way or another. Now that I’m 45ish, I realize that all my life I’ve never been much on material things, awards, or such. I’m happy to have a good marriage, good job, and 2 wonderful practically grown boys (18 & 21). I built my dream home six years ago, and Wal Mart came to my neghborhood, making me sell it. My oldest is in an expensive private school (DePaul) in Chicago, but he works 3 jobs just to help defer costs–he does this willingly, we do not make him. When My husband is out of Teri–the money there will pay off his loans. When son #2 graduates in June, he is planning to go to Univ of Alabama. I ask my husband how we will pay for it if he does not get any help (he just might), and my husband says it will be taken care of for me not to worry. My childhood wasn’t as severe as yours, but i do remember being without what all the other kids had, and wearing MANY clothes from the sewing machine at home or handed down. (Actually there was a four year period of my childhood where five of us kids wore the same sized jeans….) I don’t know how my Mom & Dad managed it–but we never went without clothes or food. But I think my upbringing has made me never have the same desires as a “material girl.” And it also has made me positive, glass half full, and thankful for the things that I have. God-willing, we will be okay always. I went to college (Winthrop) on a Pell grant after ditching the nursing program when my Dad suddenly died at an arly age–56. That probably also molded me into the person I am, never taking anything for granted and never wanting more than I needed to get by.

    I don’t know why SDW, but I get you. I just desire that you have a more positive outlook, so that is on my prayer list. You are QUITE GIFTED in many ways. It take really special peple to want to work in –how do i say it in a delicate way–a Title One school?

    Keep blogging. it is a healthy outlet, and very enjoyable to read. Okay. Don’t forget we have dinner plans for SCASL–bring Budge. Maybe even my treat.

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