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Thoughts on Creating Relationships with People in Poverty

Op/Ed By Wallace Mabry –


Wallace Mabry

Wallace Mabry

One could say with some assurance that the importance of any relationship is mainly educational, and to some degree psychologically sound outreach. The purpose of which, in respect to poverty, is to gain some understanding of the plights of the poor and impoverished, the disadvantages they experience, their sense of belonging in a world of mass consumption, and not belonging because of the dire circumstances in which they live that never seem to ameliorate beyond marginal standards, and to understand and question, during the undertaking, how the same socio-cultural and economic opportunities that make it possible for some to thrive, also make it possible for the plights of the poor and impoverished to exist.

The practice that follows from, or that accompany such an established relationship and learning, one would hope, is to develop a consciousness, a sense of responsibility, and a plan of action that is not condescending of what may be the poor’s current role acceptance, but designed to inoculate a sense of historical expediency and activism on the parts of the poor, and instill within them the desire and drive that will transform them.

The concept of a “hand up” approach has much in common with the “pulling one up by the boot straps” approach of the sixties and early seventies. The overwhelming number of the poor and impoverished in America contradicts any success of that approach since their numbers have increased, and not decreased over the years.

Consider Margaret Jones (a pseudonym) who is a 35-year-old woman, but looks to be much older. She has three children under 18 years old, fathered by two different men, both of whom abandoned their paternal responsibilities for reasons unknown.

Ms. Jones is a collector of a sort. She collects chairs, sofas, lamps, and tables discarded at the curbside for the trash collector. On occasion, she is the recipient of clothes and shoes others in the neighborhood feel some obligation to part with, and extend to her based on their sense of grace, and the kindness of their hearts.

Ms. Jones’ children attend community schools where their dress and the odors emanating from them are often the butt of laughter and social isolation.

Ms. Jones has been the subject of child protective services investigations. Ms. Jones is also familiar with the ‘hand up’ concept as she has been referred, monitored, and decidedly closed out of services on a number of occasions.

She is supported by social services and food stamps.

Ms. Jones never learned to read well, but she has been taught how to sign her name.

In spite of her shortcomings in that regard, she wants her children to succeed in the educational realm.

How do we proceed in our efforts to establish a relationship with Ms. Jones? Do we wait until she comes to the attention of our agency? Do we ferret out from our present clientele the Ms. Jones’ who we discover, and set about procuring in-depth background information, so as to enable us to make more rational assessments and reach more reasonable conclusions? What, then, do we do with that information? Does it translate into an outreach that is sustainable and reality-based? Or does it fizzle out within a given time frame and end?

Hope, it may be suggested, is not something you build up within a person only to be successful in having accomplished the feat. Hope must be capable of being realized and manifested in physical, concrete ways. The time element to the actual achievement must be reasonable, and based on the quality and quantity of one’s efforts and resources directed at achieving the set goal.

How, based on the foregone, do we aid Ms. Jones in rising up from the pathetic social, economic, and educational conditions of her plight? Do we set about aligning a body of programs through which she is processed and fed the right ingredients (information and job preparation training)?

What can be disturbing and often is, is that Ms. Jones may well come out of these programs a finished product, excuse the metaphor, a Ms. Jones who is qualitatively different from the Ms. Jones who first entered the body of programs, but a Ms. Jones no more informed of her reality than she was previously, except that now she has better living conditions and more access, based on her ability to make out what the words on the paper actually say. And, let us not forget, she has ascended. Ms. Jones is a worker with an earned income, and a fresh new outlook on life.

While Ms. Jones’ fresh new outlook on life may well be satisfying to those who have set the programs in motion, the question is how much more informed is Ms. Jones of the elements of the culture that kept her in her poverty state for such a long time, and what are the sustaining conditions that will prevent her from re-visiting aspects of that poverty state once the government subsidy funding her particular job site diminishes, runs out, and is not refunded?

What are the chances that Ms. Jones will be retained in her employment based on her learned skill sets, or subject to the whims of an employer who may be more inclined now to replace her with a more suitable hire? What affect would the loss of employment, where she may have been applauded for her work ethic, have on her mental state? Will there be a decline? Will she revert to old patterns of thought, social services, and role acceptance?

What might have Ms. Jones learned from such encounters, and what will we have learned from our relationships with her?

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