We hear this sentence often. Many consider it a virtue, something that one should know how to do, when meeting adversity. For sure, we owe a lot of respect to those, who after an adversity are able to recover, re-establish themselves and be successful again.
But, how common is this? Why is there still so much poverty? Why so many do not pull themselves-up by the bootstraps? Can everyone do this?
The distinction between Situational or Generational poverty might help us understand.
In situational poverty, people can pull themselves up by the bootstraps, but very often, they need at least some help. These are people, who find themselves in difficulty because of job loss, illness, migration to a new country, or death in the family. Often, they are eager and motivated to do better. Usually, they already have a social network and skills. What they need is friendship in a moment of difficulty, encouragement, and targeted programs that solve their specific problem. Then, they will eagerly take the opportunity to become self-sufficient again. A guiding hand can make a big difference on how fast and how well they can recover.
Here is a story of what it takes to lift a family out of situational poverty, offered by Tom Jefferson, VOP, St. Cyril of Alexandria conference in Tucson.
“The Dhimal (not their real name) family with three children, a boy age 9 and two girls 13 and 16 arrived in Tucson, Arizona, at the end of March 2008. The family had been forced out of Bhutan a decade ago. They arrived under the sponsorship of the International Rescue Committee, IRC. IRC supported the family for the first six months after their arrival. Support included apartment rent, health care, and an initial stipend for necessities. The caseworker along with volunteers helped the family sign up for food stamps, apply for jobs, enroll children in school, and instructed the family on how to use local transportation, and, in general, connect to programs, available in the community, that would help them improve and adjust to their new lives.
My son was initially involved with helping this family, but soon my wife, Jan, became involved as well, spending far more time than my son, who had less flexibility with his schedule. Jan helped finding furniture and appliances for their apartment, sign up for a bank account, finding and using markets that they could walk to, finding local thrift stores, writing a resume and job applications, finding and using a bicycle to get to work, etc. Then, finding and using a local library branch, where they could walk to and get internet access and a bit of relief from the heat of their apartment. Other help included getting medical care, and serving as an advocate and advisor.
At one point, near the end of their six-month’s medical coverage, the school nurse found that one of the daughters had a major hearing loss. The cause of the loss was a chronic ear infection in both ears, which required surgery to correct, which eventually improved her hearing significantly. At the same time, she also discovered that the children had never seen a dentist. All five members of the family needed cavities filled, and it was a scramble to complete the work before the dental coverage ran out. The youngest daughter had severely misaligned teeth, which had a significant impact on her appearance. The dentist was able to pull several teeth to prepare her for orthodontia through the St. Elizabeth Clinic at extremely reduced rates. Jan was instrumental in making all the connections necessary for these procedures, which initially seemed out of reach for the family.
During those two years, Jan spent over a 1000 hours helping the family and especially the children. She was available several times a week for different activities, such as taking one of the children out of school and bringing them to doctor appointments, so that the parents did not have to miss a day of work and the child did not have to miss a full day of school. My wife and son were not the only ones involved with this family, the IRC’s caseworker, other volunteers, and a rapidly expanding refugee community from Bhutan were involved. This gives an idea of how much effort it took.
Over the past 6 years, the family accomplished a great deal. They achieved total self-sufficiency. All the children have done very well in school. Since their arrival, they focused on earning scholarships that would allow them to go to college. The two oldest daughters are both at the U of A, with full scholarships, and the youngest son is doing well in high school. In 2012, they all became U.S. citizens. With the help of a $50,000 personal loan from a volunteer, Jay and Reeta were able to purchase a home at the best possible time, and have since paid back the personal loan. Recently, they were finally able to purchase a SUV.
In conclusion, it is apparent that this family will be successful in their life in Tucson. This was possible because of the tremendous amount of initial help provided. They had no idea on how to function in this country, but they arrived with good education, good health, initial English skills, good attitudes, and excellent social skills. These assets were essential for their success. At the same time, I doubt that they would have done so well without the significant initial help received. (Tom Jefferson, VOP Tucson)
When poverty has been multigenerational, we often find that people do not have the boots, nor the straps, to pull themselves up. They lack the most basic skills to do well in society and their first priority is survival. Their social network is usually limited to others in the same circumstances. For these people it is usually very difficult to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty, unless help covers the entire range of their needs: from emotional, to spiritual, psychological, educational, medical, etc. Unfortunately, most often, available programs are limited to short-term economic help, which will not move people out of poverty.
Only after the needed care is provided, a spark can light up their spirit, a spark that gives them the necessary faith and motivation to do better.
Consider this story from home visits by St. Frances Cabrini conference in Tucson:
When we responded to Monica Solomon’s call for help with her electric bill of $341, which the Society paid, we learned that Monica (not the real name) was 25 and a single mother of five children, 6, 5, 4, 2, 3 months. Her birth parents abandoned her when she was 6 years old. Her grandparents took her in and raised her. Monica was a poor student and dropped out of high school after the 10th grade. At age 17, the grandparents booted Monica from their home because of her bad behavior. Monica was soon pregnant with the first of five children.
Monica has little family support, except for that one sister that occasionally provides limited assistance. There is no support from any of the multiple fathers. Monica derives her scant livelihood from baby-sitting and assistance from public and nonprofit agencies.
The toll of poverty, multiple pregnancies, substance abuse and the lack of a loving relationship are apparent in Monica’s demeanor, health and appearance. Her ambitions for herself and children are very low. Monica herself needs mothering, help with her addictions and guidance on how to parent.
The best hope out of poverty for the Solomon children is that they are inspired to learn to read at an early age. Early reading skills are a child’s first and most crucial step out of poverty! Due to circumstances not of their choosing, Monica’s children will receive very limited reading skills at home. Odds that the children will break free of poverty become even more daunting given the fact that their neighborhood elementary school does not meet AZ educational standards.
Without intervention, Monica’s children will live a life of poverty.
Vincentians have provided immediate assistance, but it only makes a difference temporarily. How do we help this family move out of poverty? Can any programs public or private heal this situation? Programs are certainly necessary, but what this family needs is so much more. Who can win their trust and guide them step by step?
Even more than the Bhutanese family, they need to be “adopted”. Who can walk with them and stay with them until they are able to change their circumstances? How long will it take? How many people need to be involved?
We have not yet found an answer to these questions, but we feel challenged by this story and want to search further for solutions and people willing to help.
We are well aware that we might have oversimplified how to go about helping those who need to change their circumstances, but the stories we have reported give an idea of the real complexities of moving people out poverty.