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Shanesha Taylor and the Hidden Rules of Poverty

© Andrew Holbrooke

Mark Gordon - published on 11/26/14 - updated on 06/07/17

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.

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