How Do Four People Live on $11,000 Per Year? (Re)humanizing Poverty in America

Recently, the writer Paul Tough sidled up to the dormant conversation about poverty in America and prodded it with a sharp stick, twice.

First, he issued a calling-to-account of a political leader whose foray into politics, by self-admission, was grounded in the desire to claim political power in service of poor communities. This person happens to be the President of the United States who, Tough notes, has yet to offer a speech on poverty during his almost four years in office.  [To be clear, the President has launched anti-poverty initiatives, even if he has not spoken on the topic.]

Second, and perhaps more importantly, Tough suggested that America’s poverty problems reside in the structure and behavior of poor families. Referring to “family dislocations,” Tough nods to research that indicates that poverty recycles from one generation to the next in no small part due to “family dynamics and their effects on child development.” A young woman angry with her mother for not successfully warding off sexual abuse from a relative comes to school ready to fight with any peer who triggers her rage –– a true-life example Tough offers from the Roseland neighborhood in Chicago’s South Side.

Tough’s point: that the next wave of anti-poverty interventions must focus on the family.

Tough is careful to note the institutional and cultural dynamics that are animated in any family scenario –– a long-time student of poverty in America, he is well aware of the fraught and toxic political history of the role of family and culture in driving poverty outcomes. And while acknowledging that the political landscape is very hard to navigate on this issue, his conclusion about the heart of the problem being “family dislocation” brings federal-level policy right into the most intimate space of American life: the home. As he sees it, “the biggest factor holding back social mobility of poor children may be one we don’t have a good strategy to solve –– and it may be one we don’t feel comfortable even addressing at all.”

Tough indicates that some combination of home visiting programs, intensive early-childhood education, and mentoring initiatives for teens could be very effective in reducing poverty, in greater number and with improved coordination from the government.

Scale is another critical challenge that, while unmentioned in Tough’s piece, deserves ample consideration. Many of the family-focused programs described in the article are both time- and cost-intensive. Pairing counselors or mentors with families and teenagers is a high-touch engagement, if done correctly –– and it takes a lot of time. How should municipalities redirect resources, and away from what to cover the costs of such a program?   To guide these conversations, an informed policy analyst might consider what economic benefits might be derived in the future from more stable, healthy and productive families.

Is it possible that schools might see educational gains and school operational savings from a more focused and stable student body? Do those individuals then graduate at higher rates, get jobs and consume goods, and contribute to the economy at greater scale? Might they be less likely to then require entitlement assistance in the form of housing vouchers, Medicare/Medicaid, and other social services?

And then there’s the question of how we gather these stories? Could we activate the thousands of AmeriCorps volunteers stationed across the country, train them in ethnographic and user research methods, and ask them to interview the same families with whom they are engaging in the course of normal daily activities? Just as Deepa Narayan did in collecting 60,000 individual voices from across 15 countries in her groundbreaking research on the experiences of poor people globally, so could we develop tens of thousands of human stories of family life of America’s poor. In the age of Teach for America and Code for America, why couldn’t we embed ethnographers in localities with high poverty to Storytell for America?

In the 21st century, these stories can be amplified and conveyed in diverse and nimble media formats, with compelling graphic imagery designed to leverage the virality that only the internet enables. We can overlay these stories with data visualizations and photojournalistic reporting that help us understand what it truly means to maintain four peoples’ lives on $11,000 a year –– a reality for the families of those seven million American children who earn below 50 percent of the poverty line –– and just how many people are eking out an existence in this manner.

Flowing from a concerted re-humanization of the experience of poverty, one would hope to see policymakers take this set of human stories and develop from it some tangible set of interventions, grounded in real, human needs and circumstances. This is a hard task –– made even more knotty by the complex and well-paid landscape of lobbyists being retained, in some cases, to ensure that just the opposite outcome occurs.

No pragmatist would argue that meaningfully addressing the challenges of poverty is not difficult. But perhaps with a new collective empathy for the human experience of poverty, our political establishment can have an easier time setting aside their fears and anxieties about alienating more influential voters.

Let us start, then, by talking with each other, and about the most vulnerable among us.


Futher reading.