Commentary, In the community

Commentary: Small steps can help people in poverty feel valued

In talking about the plight people living in poverty or generational poverty no one mentions the very negative connotation associated with those in poverty.

Once while traveling, a woman sitting next to me in the airport asked about the pin on my jacket lapel.  I told her it was a Head Start pin.  She asked me what Head Start was, when I began to explain the services Head Start provided to those living in poverty, she stuck her nose in the air and said, “Oh, you serve those people.” 

She stopped talking to me, moving to another location as though I had the plague.  Yes, this is the mindset of many people.  Unfortunately, many people believe individuals living in poverty are criminals, drunks, druggies, lazy, unemployed wanting to live off the system, and not doing anything to better themselves.  No one mentions the people from all social economic levels that meet this same definition.

Growing up in poverty taught me how those living in poverty feel and are treated.  We lived in poverty due to the low wages, not because anyone was lazy, a criminal, an addict, or wanting to live off the system. My father worked from daylight to darkness on farms or factories providing for his family.  He was doing the best he could. 

Schools treated us differently than those of wealthier families.  Once in school, a group of girls standing around me at the bus stop were harassing me. They were from higher income families.  The staff on bus duty, looked me in the eye, then turned around and walked off without saying anything to the tormentors. 

The message to me and many low-income individuals is they aren’t good enough, don’t measure up and the world around them wants nothing to do with them.  I learned early to become as invisible as possible in the world outside of my home as a defense mechanism.  My school years, for the most part, was a miserable experience. 

My family was the reason I developed any self-confidence or self-esteem at all.  I had to make myself come out of this shell while in high school, vowing not to be treated this way any longer.  After graduating, I obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees with high honors. 

I was able to do this because of the type of personality I have.  If I had not been determined to show others I could do anything they could, I wouldn’t have these successes.  Has anyone ever thought of what it does to a child to be downtrodden and beat down from the time one enters school?  Not just by other students, but those proving the education, and by society itself. 

If one learns from a young age they aren’t good enough or smart enough to succeed, then what makes the world believe when they enter the world as an adult all will be forgotten, and they’ll strive to break from the throes of poverty? 

Having come from a family of eight siblings, four have gone on to college, are doing quite well and four which are quite diligent workers but still living in poverty.   First there is something like opportunity, who helps a person living in poverty go onto college or a trade school.  Parents living in poverty lack the financial means to assist their children through college.   Another issue with poverty and furthering one’s education is their perception of themselves because of society’s treatment of them throughout life. 

Remember, they simply aren’t good enough!  Why would they ever assume they can make it through college or trade school? 

People asking how to assist those living in poverty only need to look around with their eyes wide open.  They will see children who might wear clean nice clothes, but not the same brands and styles of their peers.  A small matter, but it helps to make them feel a part of the whole, to be accepted by their peers, to not stand out and to gain a greater sense of self. That makes a great difference in carrying them onto the next phase of their life. 

How about looking at the family driving the old clunker to get back and forth to work?  Praying every day that the battery doesn’t die, new tires aren’t needed, or a mechanical problem won’t occur preventing them from getting to and from work.  How about assisting someone with repairs on their car, the cost of new tires, or obtaining a new battery?  This will carry that family a long way. 

There are many other examples that are in front of us every day that we could assist with.  Poverty is not something to be cured overnight.  It’s not something to just throw money at.  It is something one sees as a need and then steps up to help one person, one family at a time.  It’s helping them to feel valued, accepted, and respected. 

It’s like when someone says they want to help you, to just give them a call if they can help with anything.  If you really want to help, don’t ask how. You can already see things that need to be done. Help without needing to be asked.  This is really how you help others.

Over the past 44 years, I have watched adults blossom as they gain a sense of self-worth and self-confidence.  They learn they have a wealth of knowledge and skills to share with those around them.  As they blossom, I watch from the sidelines as their new sense of self-worth and confidence enables achievement of goals they once felt incapable of obtaining. 

Ask yourself: What are you doing to help people feel good about themselves, to help them find ways to obtain their goals, and emotionally support them along the way?  Remember adults who have a strong sense of self create children who have the same sense of being. 

These are the things that lead to great accomplishments and onto the road out of poverty.

Susan Robinett is executive director of Malheur County Child Development Center. She wrote this in response to the Enterprise series, “Children of Poverty.”

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