The Common Good

Poverty and Personal Responsibility (Part 1, by Romal Tune)

During this election cycle, we have heard candidates talk about ways in which we can work to end poverty. John Edwards has a new initiative to cut poverty in half in 10 years. These and other initiatives are certainly admirable ideas and much-needed programs that could help millions of men, women, and children.

In additions to programs and needed policy changes from our elected officials, we are also hearing about personal responsibility. And yes, inasmuch as we should look to our elected officials to address the needs of a growing "underclass," those in need must also do something to change their circumstances. However, as we work to address the needs of the poor through policy, programs, and personal responsibility, we must also take into account that something is missing from this dialogue.

As someone who grew up poor in a single-parent household, I went without dinner more nights that I can even count. At times having to choose between using my bus fare for lunch and walking home, sometimes the decision to eat forced me to humble myself and stand on the corner asking strangers for change so that I could get home. I know from experience that there is more to the task of eliminating poverty than programs, policy, and personal responsibility.

For those of us who either grew up poor or work in poor communities, you have likely come to realize that the psychological impact of poverty is just as damaging as the circumstance itself. Perhaps the most difficult task, when trying to get people to engage in the work of their own liberation, is convincing them to believe that they are worthy of a better life. Yes, there are those in poor communities who, given a fair chance, will rise above their circumstances and pursue a better life. But we cannot ignore the reality that there are others whose spirits have been broken and feel like the darkness of poverty is their destiny. There are those who have been told so many times that they will never amount to anything, will never achieve anything, and even deserve to be where they are, that they now believe it is true. These are the men, women, and children for whom it will take more than good policy to get them out of poverty. These are the men, women, and children who can no longer be inspired by words that seem foreign to them, because it has been words that have done them the most harm.

There is a saying that "hurt people, hurt people." In other words, many living in poverty are simply doing what they were taught by their parents. They are using the skills and words handed down to them by people who were hurting, and they are now instilling the same beliefs in their children. They have not seen examples of how to do things in a different way, they do not know how to encourage their children because they were not encouraged as a child, and they do not know how to live as a community or family where people meet the needs of others so that everyone can succeed, because from early in their lives they have been left alone and had to fend for themselves.

[to be continued...]

Rev. Romal Tune is the CEO of Clergy Strategic Alliances, a graduate of Howard University and Duke University School of Divinity, and a member of the Red Letter Christians.

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