Why are people poor? I remember being asked this question 10 years ago while training for a program I was volunteering with. Back then, just out of college, I had little to no first-hand knowledge or experiences with poverty in America and felt completely ill-equipped to answer the question. The only poverty I knew was what I saw visiting India, where it seemed poverty was blamed mostly on systemic failure and karma. In America, it seemed like poverty was mostly blamed on the individual and their individual choices and behavior. In India your caste had the power of determining your place in society; in America it seemed your race had similar effects.
Since first being asked that question10 years ago, my own individual belief system about race and poverty has evolved. My work, my education, and the relationships I have formed across race and class have helped me to understand the complexity of the underlying causes and effects of poverty. Yet, at the same time I am surprised at how little the general American population's belief system has evolved over a much longer period of time.
In America the general belief system about race and poverty continues to be built upon the foundation that poor people are poor simply because of their choices and behavior. A 2007 Pew Research Center poll reported that an overwhelming percentage of Americans believe that people who are poor do not succeed because of their own shortcomings; only 19 percent emphasized the roll of discrimination or other structural and economic forces that go beyond the control of any one individual.
I guess I can understand that since few themes are as powerful in the American psyche as that of individual responsibility. We treasure notions of individual accomplishment, meritocracy, and equal opportunity, believing that these values translate directly into the daily experience of all Americans. This overly individualistic approach to race and poverty fits nicely within our overall individualistic approach to many life issues. In our imperfect world with its many inequities, however, these values inevitably lead to different outcomes for different individuals.
I think the conversation is much more complicated and needs to include issues like our legacy of racism, segregation, housing, education, transportation, and economic forces to name just a few. Each of these areas, I would argue, has also played a significant role in creating and sustaining poverty in America.
A recent report from the Aspen Institute asked two questions of its audience:
1. How is it that a nation legally committed to equal opportunity for all