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Shanesha Taylor and the Hidden Rules of Poverty

poverty in US

© Andrew Holbrooke

Mark Gordon - published on 11/26/14

A culture unto itself, with distinctive linguistic forms and different family and social structures

Readers may recall the case of Shanesha Taylor, a homeless 35 year-old Arizona mother arrested in Scottsdale last July for leaving her two young sons alone in a car while she interviewed for a job. The local prosecutor charged her with felony child abuse and her children were taken into state custody.  

At the time, Taylor explained that her childcare plans had fallen through and she feared that bringing her six-month and two year-old children into the interview would have scuttled her chances of landing the job. “It was a moment of desperation," she said in an interview. “It was me knowing my family was in crisis and knowing that I had to make a choice between providing for my children or caring for my children.” 

Taylor’s tearful mug shot rocketed around the Internet; and despite universal disapproval of the choice she had made, something in her eyes communicated a heartbreaking mixture of sorrow and frustrated dignity. Millions of Americans instantly sympathized with a mother who seemed to be caught between the Scylla of her immediate circumstances and the Charybdis of her desire for a better life through gainful employment.

So powerful was the reaction, in fact, that thousands of people made donations to Taylor through a crowd-funding campaign organized by a woman in New Jersey. The effort raised around $115,000, and prosecutors eventually agreed to drop the charges against Taylor if she created a college fund for her boys. She agreed, and it appeared for a time that the demands of both justice and mercy had been well served.

That is, until reports surfaced this week that Taylor was facing re-arrest on the original charges for failing to follow through on her promise to create the trust fund. A civil rights activist who worked directly with Taylor to negotiate her settlement claims that she failed to show up for job interviews and spent much of the money she received imprudently, including giving a boyfriend $6,000 to record a rap album.

Not surprisingly, the commentary has been harsh, especially in online comboxes where Taylor has been called ungrateful, lazy, stupid, and worse. She has responded, and the particulars of her situation remain clouded, so we’ll leave Taylor’s story here.

But for those who work directly with the poor on a regular basis, this case has a familiar ring to it: a person struggling with generational poverty receives the wrong kind of help at the wrong time and seemingly wastes what middle class people consider an incredible opportunity.

What those who judge someone like Shanesha Taylor fail to recognize is that generational poverty is a culture unto itself, with hidden rules, distinctive linguistic forms and registers, and different family and social structures. We in the middle class tend to reflexively judge people in generational poverty by our own cultural standards — our rules, language, social structures, and so on  without recognizing that such judgments make about as much sense as criticizing African bushmen for not using the King’s English or Sardinians for eating casu marzu cheese.  Quite often people in generational poverty either have no idea what we’re talking about when we criticize them, or else understand those criticisms in purely abstract terms.

For instance, the hidden rule of money for the middle class is that it is to be managed. We earn it steadily, pay our bills first, save some, and even invest a bit of our excess in the market. But the hidden rule of money for those in poverty is to spend it because cash in the hand is a luxury that may not come around again soon.

Take the hidden rules of time. For the middle class, the future is most important. Present decisions are always made in light of their impact on the future, whether that means next year’s vacation or retirement at 65 (or younger). For those in generational poverty, the opposite is true. The present is most important and decisions are made on the basis of survival, entertainment or relationships, not the future, which is an abstraction.

Or consider the hidden rules of education. Middle class people see education as an essential component in getting hired, making money, and advancing in a career. People in generational poverty value those things as concepts but are often so paralyzed by the “tyranny of the moment” or limited by their own self-conceptions that they rarely pursue education in a serious way.

When Shanesha Taylor gave her boyfriend money to record a rap album, she was likely acting in accordance with the hidden rule of money for someone in generational poverty: I have the money now, and I’m not likely to ever have it again, so I’ll fund his shot at fame and fortune. Similarly, when she failed to establish the $40,000 college fund for her boys it’s likely that she found a 16-year timetable fantastically unreasonable. And anyway, she may have believed, we aren’t really college people.

To be clear, knowing the rules Taylor may have used in deciding how to spend her money doesn’t objectively excuse her wastefulness or lack of attention to her obligations. But we’re not dealing with an object: we’re dealing with a subject, a person whose values have been formed in a highly personal context but within a broad band of social class

So, should middle class rules be discarded when working with those in generational poverty? Should those who work with the poor abandon the notion that the poor can achieve the middle class goods of self-sufficiency and social stability? No. The fact is that the dominant culture in the United States is middle class. That culture informs our definitions of success and failure, supplies the grammars and habits necessary for business and employment, and the values required for family stability.

Those who work directly with the poor – as opposed to the theoreticians in academia and think tanks – must encourage our friends to become bicultural, to master the rules and language of the middle class in order to win in the great American game of success and failure.

But we must do so without judging them, without viewing their poverty as a failure of character or positioning ourselves as paragons of virtue. Middle class culture in the United States can be plenty defective itself, yielding forms of social and spiritual poverty like loneliness, estrangement from extended family, workaholism, materialism, and a destructive social competitiveness summed up in the phrase “He who dies with the most toys wins.”  

By the same token, there are hidden social benefits to generational poverty that are rarely recognized by the middle class: laughter, deeper relationships, and an appreciation for the joys of the present moment, a sense of gratefulness for small blessings. If those in generational poverty can build bridges out of their condition by becoming socially bicultural and bilingual, they will bring these things with them, and enrich us all.

N.B. Many of the concepts presented here are drawn from the work of Ruby Payne, Philip DeVol, and Terie Dreussi Smith, as presented in their book “Bridges Out of Poverty.”

Mark Gordon is a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 31 years and they have two adult children.

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