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