Poverty: Looking at Why Instead of Who

By Neeraj Mehta 09-10-2009

For many Americans, our current housing crisis, banking meltdown, and global recession are increasing the risk of falling into poverty. You can't turn on the television without hearing about both who the impacted people are and why they are being impacted. What I find interesting about these discussions is the consistent emphasis on the failure of the 'system.' We're not blaming the everyday American for his or her current situation, but instead, we're putting a lot of attention on the systems that have changed the world around us.

Now don't get me wrong -- I think it's good for us to analyze these systems, since they played such a significant role in the collapse of our economy. I just wish we placed this much attention on the 'system' when discussing the lives of the millions of Americans who found themselves in poverty before the global recession as well as those who will find themselves in poverty after the economy recovers.

Historically, when trying to understand poverty in America we spend a considerable amount of time analyzing the individual, demographic, and social characteristics that might lead to a person's increased risk of impoverishment. We vilify those with less education, fewer job skills, or health problems. We characterize entire groups of people -- like single mothers or minorities living in the inner city -- as at fault for their own poverty. Our collective lack of response to the issues of poverty is often due to our view of the problem; we see it as impacting a few select groups of people plagued with moral failing or individual inadequacies.

We're good at critiquing the people who are experiencing poverty, but we spend much less time critiquing the system that can so often ensnare or even create the situations in the first place. We're good at identifying WHO is likely to experience poverty in America, but we do not consistently journey into looking at WHY poverty occurs in the first place.

portrait-neeraj-mehtaNeeraj Mehta has been working with others to uncover beauty and strength in North Minneapolis for the past 10 years. Previously he worked for Project for Pride in Living and most recently as program and strategic development director for the Sanctuary Community Development Corporation. Currently, he is working with the community-building intermediary Nexus Community Partners, partnering with others to create more engaged and powerful communities in the Twin Cities.

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