Which came first the chicken or the egg?
(Photo Courtesy of Pixabay.com)
After Tony (not his real name) was born, his mom left him at the hospital. She was a crack addict and was obviously not in any condition to be a parent. When the hospital discovered she had left, they called his maternal grandmother, who was listed as an emergency contact on the admissions form, and told her that she needed to come and pick up her daughter's child. She did and for the next 10 years she did her best to raise him. By the time he was nine years old he was too much for her to handle. He started running away and staying out in the streets all night. Soon he began living in the streets, dealing drugs and sleeping wherever he could hustle a couch. When I met Tony, he was 17 years old and his, life by all accounts, had been Hell. He was well-built and handsome and used his charm to get women for sex, but he told me he did it mainly to make sure that he had a bed to sleep in most nights. I don’t know if he had any children, but it wouldn't surprise me if he did, given the way he had survived.
Are people living in poverty because of the choices they make, Or are the choices they make, made because they live in poverty?
Unlike the paradoxical question regarding the origin of poultry, what causes the cycle of generational poverty depends on your worldview. In America, people living in poverty are most often characterized in ways that seem to indicate that they deserve it. When I began this work, my own bias was that somehow people were responsible for the state that they were in. I thought that if they had made better choices and if they could have made certain changes in the way they lived, things would have been better for them. These assertions ring true for most middle and upper-class Americans, however what I learned from having more of a front row seat to lives lived in poverty, was that the life circumstances that you inherit at birth, are the most significant influence on the way you come to see the world, and what you subsequently choose to do to make your way in it. Now there are clearly exceptions, but those are few and far between. In fact, research data has been aggregated is such a way that we can now predict, based upon the street address where you were born, the type of education you are likely to receive, the health issues you are most likely to have, the income you are likely to earn and when you are likely to die. When you take even a cursory look at this information, you can see why many experts say people born into generational poverty are born into a Socioeconomic Caste System, not unlike the Social Caste System in India.
Poor young African American men are possibly the most systemically disenfranchised group of people in our society. The combination of social stigma, institutional disenfranchisement and personal choices (which are most often made in reaction to social stigma economic disenfranchisement) combine to keep this demographic group from accessing the opportunities available in our socioeconomic system. The stigma attached to a young black male goes back to D.W. Griffith's 1915 silent film Birth of a Nation. This now infamous film, characterize black men as ignorant predators out to destroy the culture built by the white man. This film was a commercial success and helped to fuel the social and political forces that launched the KKK and institutionalized the 'Jim Crow Era' which created a legacy of public perception that is still powerful to this day. Tony may not have ever heard the term Jim Crow, but he had been born into its legacy through no fault of his own, and was caught in its still potent wake, which provided him a limited set of choices to try to survive.
I would never argue that people should not take personal responsibility for their lives; because I believe that if there is a formula for achievement, it starts with taking responsibility for your own life. However, the call for personal responsibility, which is used by many to justify blaming young black men for their plight in our society, is akin to blaming a flower for not blooming when it was planted in dry soil and never watered. When circumstances are such that they actually work against you in ways that render your efforts (even extraordinary ones) unsuccessful, then those conditions have to be acknowledged as a factor; and in this American social context the circumstances that many poor young black men (like Tony) are born into, through no fault of their own, are a factor.
I wish I had a good report regarding Tony’s life, I don’t. Tony was shot and killed several years ago when he was mistaken as a threat as he ran away from a fight he was not a part of…
Robert Caldwell is the Executive Director of AnswerPoverty.org and has been a practitioner and thought leader on the issues of poverty & race for more than 25 years. Visit AnswerPoverty.org
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