‘Poverty 101’ combines life story, practical solutions

March 30, 2010 by

When Dr. Donna Beegle talks about the “war zone” where people in poverty live every day, her voice rings with the emotion of her own experience. But she backs up the stories from her life, and that of her family, with nearly 20 years of education and research to help those who too often have no voice.

“I know too much to be quiet,” she said with both force and humor as she began Tuesday’s “Poverty 101” workshop at the Nazareth Motherhouse in Concordia.

More than 120 participants from throughout north central Kansas took part in the daylong workshop by Beegle, a nationally known speaker from Portland, Ore. Tuesday evening she spoke on the same subject at the Brown Grand Theatre as part of the Cook Lecture Series. Her presentations in Concordia were sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph and Cloud County Community College.

The workshop was designed for professionals who work with people in poverty and attracted representatives from area schools, social service agencies, local churches and other nonprofit organizations.

“If you’re working with people in poverty,” Beegle told the crowd in the Motherhouse auditorium, “odds are you are not in it for the money. Most of you providing help to human beings are criminally underpaid.”

Throughout her presentation on the barriers faced by people who grow up in multi-generational poverty, Beegle wove stories from her own life: Her parents and grandparents were cotton pickers, working throughout the West as migrant laborers for most of her childhood. Most of her family members were illiterate and they were often homeless.

Yet, she said, “My parents taught me everything they knew. But they couldn’t teach me about school, they couldn’t teach me how to get out of poverty. They didn’t know that.”

Instead, she grew up hearing blame and feeling judged by everyone outside her family. “My experience was that the people who were making it didn’t care about people like my family,” she said. “I thought I had such bad parents that no one would talk to them directly.”

Just as she had no understanding of the middle-class perspective, she now sees that “we as a nation are uneducated on this subject of poverty.”

Beegle’s goal, then, is “not to go into a community and say, ‘Do this.’ I say, ‘This is what poverty looks like, this is how I see it.’ And I try to help you see it through different eyes.”

One major part of that, she believes, is focusing on capacity — having the means available for those in poverty to address issues in their lives.

As an example, she explained what happens when a school discovers a poor child has head lice. To avoid spreading the problem to other children, the school sends th child home with instructions on how to eliminate the head lice. “By our actions, we tell him he’s dirty, he has bugs. Then we tell parents to buy $18 shampoo and take all the clothing and bedding to a laundromat where it’s going to cost $7 a load.  And we tell them to keep the child at home, but these parents don’t have the kinds of jobs where you can take a sick day with a child; if they take a day, they get fired.

“It’s a situation where those parents do not have the capacity to solve the problem.”

Beegle readily acknowledges she did not have the needed capacity, either.

At 25, she was a high school drop-out and divorced mother of two, with no job skills and on the verge of homelessness.

What she describes as a “fluke” led to her being accepted into a pilot program to help poor single mothers break the cycle of poverty through education. At first, though, the appeal of the program was solely in the subsidized housing that came with it.

“To motivate someone toward change, the change has to be convenient and I have to see its purpose, I have to see what’s in it for me,” she explained. “We can all be motivated, if we understand what motivation works.”

Part of the motivation for her as she entered the program was suddenly being surrounded by people who believed in her and who mentored her. And it meant that those people had to tell her the truth.

“There’s a middle-class mentality of, You gotta work for it!” she said. “But in our labor market, hard work is not an indicator of success. Who works harder? The farm worker or the person in an office cubicle?

“Everyone I ever knew worked hard, and working hard meant you still couldn’t pay the utility bills or stop from getting evicted.”

In her doctoral research at Portland State University, Beegle studied college graduates who had come from multigenerational poverty. And in every case, the one constant she found was a mentor — someone who had taken an interest in the individual and served as something as a “translator” as that person moved from the culture of poverty to the culture of the middle class.

“We have to move away from ‘what’s wrong with you?’ to ‘what’s right with you,’” Beegle said. “We have to adopt the NASA approach: Failure cannot be an option.”

We also have to move past the idea that programs to address poverty are just too expensive in an economic downturn, she said.

She cited two statistics: Last year Americans spent $26 billion on merchandise featuring Hannah Montana, High School Musical and Disney Princess. We spent another $33 billion on supplies and toys for our pets.

“Together that $59 billion would provide health care for all our children for five years,” she said. “It’s not about scarcity; it’s about priority.”

Poverty “is not a Republican issue, it’s not a Democratic issue, it’s not conservative or liberal, it’s not Catholic or Mormon or anything else. It’s a human issue,” she said. “We have to stop blaming and judging, and we have to become educated about the barriers that exist and simple ways we can help break through them.

“I think it’s difficult to be a good citizen without ‘Poverty 101.’”

Comments

3 Responses to “‘Poverty 101’ combines life story, practical solutions”

  1. Jodi Creten on April 5th, 2010 8:41 am

    I can identify with Donna Beegle’s assessment of the need for good mentoring to rise above the cycle of poverty. We often see it here in Atlanta through the Big Brother/Big Sister program, as good folks intervene in the lives of teens living in the midst of gangs, saving them from everyday violence.Through our own mentoring
    a dear friend is back on her feet, and is able to mentor her own children, who in turn, teach their children.

  2. Jeanette Wasinger on April 2nd, 2010 1:23 pm

    The evening session with Donna Beegle at the Brown Grand Theatre was an education one cannot purchase in most schools. It was a journey through her experience of multigenerational poverty. Schools do not teach it. Dr. Beegle took the audience by the hand and walked us through the cycle of poverty. It was a very moving “crash course” in Poverty 101! I am grateful to have been there. Thank you for this awesome 2010 Cook Lecture Series.

  3. Loretta Jasper, csj on March 30th, 2010 4:46 pm

    I am utterly green with envy. My daily work committments did not provide me the option to attend…but hey! I have a job and am loving it. Thus, the flip side of Beegle’s message!
    I do hope one such as myself has the opportunity to get a poignant summary of Beegle’s input and philosophy for breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty.

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