We Know Whose Fault Poverty Is–So Why Do Our Terms Blame the Poor?

Shelterforce began, 40 years ago, as a newspaper for tenant organizers. They were legal aid lawyers and similar rabble rousers in small cities in Northern New Jersey, wanting to connect […]

Shelterforce began, 40 years ago, as a newspaper for tenant organizers. They were legal aid lawyers and similar rabble rousers in small cities in Northern New Jersey, wanting to connect to other folks doing similar work across the country: organizing groups of tenants to stand up to their landlords about horrendous living conditions, fighting for policies that protected tenants.

We have expanded over the years, as many of those same people have moved into deploying the resources they fought for, and have moved to looking at the intersections of all the different factors that relate to empower or disempower low-income people and to create places that tend to be healthy, empowering places to live, or not.

These things are great. But periodically, we all need to be reminded that this was a movement started to acheive justice, not to extend charity or moralizing, and having had that reminder, to reexamine our programs and our philosophies for drift.

Recently I have read two searing articles that I think everyone who works in the field should read, closely, and really sit with. 

One is “Resilience Is Futile: How Well-Meaning Nonprofits Perpetuate Poverty“ by Melissa Chadburn, which talks about the trend toward examining and trying to improve poor people’s “resilience” in the face of challenges that are structural and political.

What the resilience preachers look for is a person to be unchanged in the face of trauma. But I would argue that this is impossible, that people are always changed by trauma, and furthermore, that we ought to be. Rather than shift ourselves to change what is, the foundations that fund these initiatives would be better off addressing the gaps, filling the lacks, changing what isn’t.

Chadburn shows, using her own experience, both growing up poor and working at a nonprofit taking this approach, the absurdity of assuming that the problem is that people who are being screwed are not resilient enough.

There is, for sure, value in understanding trauma and how to work with and support trauma-survivors (I think this project is pretty good on that), and in recognizing how many traumas poverty deals out. But by slipping into making a certain kind of resilience, as opposed to reducing the causes of poverty and trauma, the goal becomes a serious problem.

The other article, even closer to home for many of our readers, is Maya Dukmasova’s stirring argument that we need to ditch the term “concentrated poverty” because it puts the blame for the problems in poor areas on the presence of many poor people themselves, rather than on the forces that isolate people there and deprive them of public amenities and opportunities:

Rather than untangling the complicated causes of concentrated poverty, the liberal establishment blames concentrated poverty for the poor educational attainment of children and deficient child-rearing practices of adults. But this is a dangerous conceptual trend, because it validates the idea that wealth and power go hand in hand and that poverty, not an array of structural problems, is to blame for the disadvantages of being poor.

Dukmasova isn’t denying the reality that places exist where poverty is highly concentrated, or that being trapped in those places has negative effects, but notes:

This useful shorthand cuts off the conceptual blood supply between cause and effect. When we blame “concentrated poverty” for the diminished quality of life in minority neighborhoods, we are confusing that which creates poverty (namely racist policies and practices) and the conditions created by it.

Such fetishizing of the deconcentration of poverty, as opposed to fixing the structural problems that cause it, lead to brain-bending arguments, like that of David Brooks post Katrina, who Dukmasova notes, “concludes that it was a blessing for poor black residents of New Orleans to lose their homes. This way they couldn’t come back and live their collective pathologies together again.”

Here’s a confession: as an editor, as sympathetic as I am to Dukmasova’s point, if I banned the term “concentrated poverty” from our pages at this historical moment, I think the number of items I could publish would plummet precipitiously. Of course we publish a variety of perspectives, not just mine, so I’m generally not in the business of banning terms anyway, but it is startlingly common, and I think the least I can do is ask everyone who uses it to pause and consider the context and implications.

As our recent back and forth over Peter Dreier’s call to focus more on big picture economic organizing shows, there’s no simple one answer—place-based work, desegregation (which in my mind carries a world of different implications from “deconcentration”), and economic justice organizing need to all be coordinated. But if we are not falling to patronizing charity work, our “theory of change,” if you will, needs to be firmly, firmly grounded in the perspectives of structural change, justice, and access to resources.

(Photo credit: Flickr user Alan Sheffield, CC BY 2.0)

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