If Poverty is Poison Story Telling is the Antidote

Research presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Science documents the neurological impact of childhood poverty on children’s brains, especially in language and memory pattern development. In his New York Times op ed “Poverty is Poison,” Paul Krugman, links these findings to the vicious cycle of poverty evident in America.

Living in or near poverty has always been a form of exile, of being cut off from the larger society. But the distance between the poor and the rest of us is much greater than it was 40 years ago, because most American incomes have risen in real terms while the official poverty line has not. To be poor in America today, even more than in the past, is to be an outcast in your own country. And that, the neuroscientists tell us, is what poisons a child’s brain.

Krugman points out that we seem to have given up LBJ’s “War on Poverty.” Rates of childhood poverty dropped until

American politics shifted to the right, attention shifted from the suffering of the poor to the alleged abuses of welfare queens driving Cadillacs. In 2006, 17.4 percent of children in America lived below the poverty line, substantially more than in 1969. And even this measure probably understates the true depth of many children’s misery. Emphasis added.

Krugman’s observation that the “official” measure of poverty “understates the true depth of many children’s misery” is the most important sentence in the entire article. The “poverty line” is nothing but an artificial mathematical construct applied to a family’s earnings; by calculating how much a family must spend on food, versus their income, the government had a line for determining aid and developing policy. What Krugman intimates is that policies based upon these statistics ignore the larger picture.

Stated a different way, statistics, not the real life stories behind them, drive public policy. Had we looked at stories of life at the poverty line, we might have noticed the extreme stress caused by childhood poverty many years ago. Knowing the full range of impact, we may have been moved to more resolute and effective action.

Stories illuminate another critical fact; the stress of childhood poverty is evident far above the official poverty line. It is axiomatic that it takes 2 incomes for most families to make ends meet. If one parent loses a job, or either suffers even a small set-back, current banking and lending practices insure that economic stress will grow at an exponential rate. A child’s family life will change in an instant. It may look the same on the outside. The poverty of the working poor is often invisible, however, behind closed doors, the poisoning stress created by its isolation and fear is no less noxious.

And working hard has nothing to do with escaping poverty; it never has. Krugman states:

Mainly, however, excuses for poverty involve the assertion that the United States is a land of opportunity, a place where people can start out poor, work hard and become rich.

But the fact of the matter is that Horatio Alger stories are rare, and stories of people trapped by their parents’ poverty are all too common. According to one recent estimate, American children born to parents in the bottom fourth of the income distribution have almost a 50 percent chance of staying there — and almost a two-thirds chance of remaining stuck if they’re black.

That’s not surprising. Growing up in poverty puts you at a disadvantage at every step.

Krugman doesn’t offer solutions. He notes that European countries do more for the “poor and unlucky” with some success, however, rather than to urge similar action in this, an election year, he seems to excuse current presidential candidates from taking the issue too seriously.

… governments that set their minds to it can reduce poverty. In Britain, the Labor government that came into office in 1997 made reducing poverty a priority — and despite some setbacks, its program of income subsidies and other aid has achieved a great deal. Child poverty, in particular, has been cut in half by the measure that corresponds most closely to the U.S. definition.

At the moment it’s hard to imagine anything comparable happening in this country. To their credit — and to the credit of John Edwards, who goaded them into it — both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are proposing new initiatives against poverty. But their proposals are modest in scope and far from central to their campaigns.

And there’s the rub. By our collective inaction we are creating a new level of intractable poverty. We must speak up and goad our politicians to take action on banking, bankruptcy, and credit reporting reforms which will have an immediate effect of reducing the economic stress on families.

Overcoming the prevailing belief the poor somehow “cause” their condition, and that a lifetime of poverty is acceptable is a daunting task. In “Strategic storytelling and social innovation” Michael J. Margolis points out that reason alone cannot overcome entrenched cultural beliefs and move people to action.

A well-crafted story becomes the platform that allows people to See, Feel, and Believe in what you are doing. By starting with the right story frame, you accelerate the pace at which people will be able to locate themselves and feel drawn into your story.

To argue change, don’t rely on statistics; tell a story. Tell your story. Tell the story you see every day in any suburb. The story of a child who sees her parents only at the end of a work day. A child who watches while her parents agonize over whether there is money enough for groceries. A child who watches her parents place call after call to get car insurance only to be turned down because of bad credit, or charged such an exorbitant amount that the choice is pay the mortgage or get the insurance. Watch this child internalize the stress day by day as she sees parents’ frustration as they fall further and further behind.

This is the story many Americans are living, stories, not statistics. Hard working men and women whose stories need to be told.

This isn’t rocket science, this isn’t even widespread economic reform. This is asking our elected officials to open their eyes and look beyond the statistics to utilize more effectively the policies already in place and to take action to prevent corporate abuse of our nation’s most vulnerable citizens.

Make your voice heard. Tell your story.

Advertisements

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: