This week, the Norfolk Daily News is doing a series on poverty in their community. We are pleased to see the paper looking at an issue that has a such a significant impact on children and are encouraged by the recognition that poverty is not just an urban issue, but one that touches every community in our state. We also appreciate the use of data on the number of families living in poverty and the disproportionate impact on women in the area.
But some of the tone and statements and articles gave us pause. There were elements of what one person quoted in the series called “blaming the poor for being poor.”
We appreciate that individuals play a role in their life circumstances, but to talk about poverty in a meaningful way, we have to acknowledge that we don’t have poverty because people are choosing to be poor. We have a country where people are born into different circumstances, and based on the circumstances of their birth, they may encounter significant barriers in trying to climb the economic ladder. We also have public benefit programs that are structured in a way that don’t set people up for long-term success (see the “cliff effect”). We also live in a country that for many years backed loans to some groups and not others, based on race.
Recently, our State Auditor made comments, for which he later apologized, which also illustrate the dominant attitudes we often have about the poor. We assume that people in poverty are solely to blame for their circumstances.
The Norfolk Daily News article on substance abuse and poverty was particularly troubling in this regard. The article cites no numbers, but states that a relationship exists between poverty and substance abuse. In reality, substance abuse is a problem that spans across income ranges, and some newer research has even found that higher parental income can even be a predictor of substance abuse for young people.
In order to truly have a productive dialogue about poverty, we have to get beyond stereotypes and assumptions and acknowledge that there is a larger context to the individual story. There are systems and programs and policies in place that are the often the unseen actor in the individual tale. We are pleased to see the Norfolk Daily News talking about poverty, but we wish that they had told the larger story that is too often ignored.