This is my second attempt at this post. The first one had a lot to say, but it wasn’t what I really wanted to say.
Recently, I read a blog post by John Scalzi entitled “Being Poor” and every one of the more than 300 comments that followed it. It was fascinating, infuriating, enlightening, and difficult to read. At times I wanted to shoot back angry words at commenters, or even at Scalzi himself. The post was written in response to people asking why so many people stayed in New Orleans during Katrina. Katrina is a hot-button topic for me on many levels.
Let’s get that out of the way first. I lived through Hurricane Ivan, which was a very similar to Katrina in terms of the storm itself. It was devastating and horrible and many people I know lost their homes. A year later, Katrina was on-target to hit us again, but made a late turn and hit Mississippi, ruined much of Coastal Alabama, flooded New Orleans, and gave Pensacola’s west side some hurricane-strength winds. Many people in Pensacola still had blue roofs. Many people in Pensacola were still in FEMA trailers, living in tents, or in sub-par housing. We had not yet been able to get contractors in for many of our repairs. However, the people of Pensacola gave everything they could to those more affected by Katrina, setting up collection stations for food, repair items, diapers, formula, etc, just as the people of Mississippi and New Orleans had done for us a year earlier.
We watched on TV and got mad that nobody had really tried to save so many people. Buses sat in New Orleans rather than having rounded up people and taken them out of there. The governor called a state of emergency, but did not sign control over to the Federal National Guard as needed to get the supplies in there that were needed. It was a mess on a local, state, and federal level, but only the feds seemed to catch flack for it.
Then they came and took the FEMA trailers while there were still no homes to be had in Pensacola. The contractors, whom we still desperately needed, left. Pensacola was forgotten, Ivan was forgotten, but still, we understood that others had it worse right then.
Alabama had never been given much thought, but then Mississippi was forgotten. Coastal Mississippi had been demolished, but within months, they were forgotten. Admit it, if you don’t live along the Northern Gulf Coast, Katrina is all about New Orleans. Here’s the thing: New Orleans in terms of physical damage was not that badly hit. So many people dying was awful. The Superdome problems were awful. But many other places were much more physically damaged.
Now, back to the original topic. Poverty, being poor. I have been there and I never want to go back. Scalzi’s original post was a list of simple sentences on being poor. Beautiful, powerful, and awful, all at once. I could relate to many of them, as could many of the people who responded. Most of them dealt with the feeling of being ignored, having to hide the shame of poverty.
Of course, others chimed in who had not ever been poor. Scalzi handled these comments well, moderating the discussion so that it did not become a rich v. poor flame war. Of course, in doing so, he kept much debate from happening, and I think a debate is necessary. There are too many people living in poverty, too many children and women living in poverty, and there really just is no good excuse for that.
Reading through the comments, everything seemed so simple. There are rich people and there are poor people. There are people who are responsible (and therefore, rich) and there are people who are irresponsible (and therefore, poor). Poor people could become rich if only they think positive thoughts. Poor people should not be allowed to procreate. People who might someday become poor through life circumstances should have known that they would become poor and planned for it.
Poverty is much more complex than that. Poverty isn’t a one-size-fits-all word. Some people are poor for a very short time, some are poor their whole lives. There are people who make a conscious choice to do something knowing it will lead to poverty, but most don’t. Some are born into poverty and will die in poverty, while many others will be born into relative affluence and descend into poverty, and far fewer will be born into poverty and become affluent. Causes of poverty are varied, which means that getting out of poverty will require different treatments.
Let’s get one thing straight right now, though. No matter how poor you are, you have the right to love, to romance, even, and the right to choose whether to have a child. Many would say that the poor should not have children, but that is a mean way of thinking. Children can be the only bright spot in a parent’s day, no matter how poor they are, and they can and do grow up happy and healthy despite poverty.
One of the first things we should do as a society is to stop the insanity that gives the most resources to the most affluent school districts. Those are the ones that need those resources the least, but I’m not advocating turning the tables, just a more equitable distribution of funds and talent. Kids in the poorest district are often the ones who are most entrenched in poverty with the fewest resources to turn their lives around. For them, knowledge is even more important than having their physical needs met (although they need that, too). They need to be surrounded by teachers who will speak to them in standard American English, who will spend a little more time understanding what is making it difficult for them to learn rather than giving up because they don’t learn, and who will read to them over, and over, and over again. In short, the very best teachers should be going to the poorest districts, not the richest. (I have plenty to say on the subject of teacher education and support, but I’ll leave that to another post). If richer people start moving into these districts for their good schools, so much the better. Greater contact between socioeconomic lines means greater understanding and opportunities for everyone.
Similarly, we need to look at Head Start and see why it is not the success it should be. My suspicions are that finding better-trained teachers will go far toward improving the program, but also that perhaps it should not be a separate program at all. With the rise in VPK programs, perhaps it would be better to integrate the resources so that there are not programs for poor people and programs for rich people, but simply high-quality programs for all. Foster a sense of community from the beginning that will help erase the shame of poverty.
Starting with better education for everyone is very much in keeping with the ideas of our founding fathers. One of the most basic precepts, Freedom of the Press, is based on the idea that knowledge is necessary for democracy to work. Education is not a handout, nor a luxury, but a right of everyone. By denying that right to certain sectors of the citizenry, we are denying ourselves a strong and vibrant government.