Too many times I’ve heard others talk down to people in poverty. Asking questions like, “Why don’t they just get or keep a job?” or, “Why are they smoking if they can’t afford rent?” or, “If I didn’t have any money there is no way I would do what they are doing.” These words may never be said around the people in poverty, but those individuals still feel the judgment and shame that is being heaped upon them. There is a massive lack of understanding toward the poor that needs to be corrected if we’d like to help end the cycle of women in prostitution because they come from poverty who come from poverty ending up in prostitution.
One of the markers for women being lured into the life is poverty. However, even within poverty the stories vary and the individuals are unique and we can treat them with respect, as anyone deserves. Poverty is not always a choice; some may have been born into poverty and not know any other way. Others come to poverty through foolish choices or addictions and others might come into poverty by a hard lot in life or tragedy. Whatever way in which the life of poverty was entered, it is not easy to get out. Our culture has a system set up to keep the poor in their place.
Here is a fictional example of Jonas and Lila with their two children Leah and Noah.
Jonas and Lila finally scraped together enough money for first, last and security deposit to rent an apartment. This is a lot of money for them. They have saved all they could for the last 4 months, but they were finally able to move out of their car and into a real-life apartment. Once they moved in, they constantly struggled to pay their rent and put food on the table. Despite Jonas working two jobs and Lila working as well. Neither of their jobs pay well and they always struggling to get by. After there year lease in the apartment is up, rent goes up by $100 a month. Even though they were barely making it before they can’t come up with another first last and security deposit for another place. They were faced with the decision to move back into their car and save for another apartment or pay the additional $100 a month which they assume will go up next year as well. They feel trapped, but they keep plugging away. The apartment manager told them it was inflation, but they don’t understand why inflation doesn’t mean they get paid better. Jonas receive a 10-cent an hour raise but that was not enough to cover the additional rent.
Unless something changes, they are going to keep struggling while they try to put the pieces together. In addition to this because of the rising rent their community is always in flux. There is massive turn over in their apartment complex every year. The relationships that so many of us rely on don’t have time to mature in this apartment life. There are even times when they don’t feel safe in the apartment because illegal activity going on in the complex. In one year, there were at least 5 different shootings in and around the apartment complex. They have had to run drive by drills with their kids to make sure they know what to do in case the bullets fly in their direction. It is as Jonas and Lila are going from crisis to crisis each month and they can’t get any rest. Lila is working 40 hours a week and Jonas is working 70. These long hours mean they have little time with the kids they love.
They have two kids, Leah and Noah who are both in elementary. Jonas and Lila both feel shame in not being able to do the kids laundry every week because they are both too tiered. There are times when the kids go to school dirty, but then again the apartment is dirty too. The lack of time and energy keeps them from ever doing a good cleaning. Leah and Noah get free lunches and are made fun of for this even though 60% of the kids in the school get the same thing. Not only this there are still times when Jonas and Lila have a hard time putting food on the table. Hunger is becoming a new normal for Leah and Noah. Jonas and Lila want a better life for their kids, but don’t know how to provide it.
The story above is made up but I guarantee it happens in our community all the time. Maybe the families are immigrants trying land on their feet or maybe they are generationally poor, either way poverty is a vicious cycle that is difficult to get out of. It is not as easy as some might think, and you can’t just put yourself up by the bootstraps. Along with the external problems they are facing they are also facing internal ones as well. They constantly feel overwhelmed and tired. They feel judgment from the community because of the neighborhood they live in. It is known as the bad part of town full of drugs and crime. Statement are made like; “What kind of parent would raise their children there?” Even though it is the only place they feel like they can afford. There is shame that sweeps over them around birthdays and Christmas when the local church provides presents and they are tired of always feeling like a charity case. There is shame for the Jonas because he simply can’t provide for all his children’s wants or needs. Shame keeps the family down just as much as poverty.
One day the Leah is hanging out at one of her friend’s apartments watching T.V. One day one of the boys that first showed Noah porn, comes in and ask the friend to leave because he needs to talk to Leah. The friend leaves and the boy sexually assaults Leah. This goes on summer after summer, as long as they live in that apartment complex. Lila is always so tiered that Leah doesn’t want to burden her further with these problems, so Leah just endures the abuse. Then when Leah is 16, she feels trapped and runs away. A pimp finds her wins her over and then introduces her to the life. The things she is asked to do, have all been done to her before so she feels that it is just normal.
Now it is not this simple. There are other factors that play into this. But I will cite a passage from Dr. Donna M. Beegle’s wonderful book on poverty called “See Poverty…Be the Difference”. I love this book because Dr. Beegle came from poverty. She understands it at a deep level. This single passage has done more to help me see poverty differently and I hope that it will do that for you as well.
“The reality is that when you are living in the crisis of poverty, it is difficult to do anything but respond to crisis needs…Too many people assume that disrespectful behavior at school is merely modeling disrespectful behavior students see at home. It is important not to make such assumptions. Although it is likely such behavior is learned, it is often taught by poverty-related experiences. My only experience with police officers was that they took away people I loved and they put eviction notices on our door. My response to a police officer will be strikingly different from that of a child who grows up seeing police as protectors or as someone who serves them…It is important to remember that if you are judging someone’s behavior, you cannot build a relationship. Relationships are build on understanding the “why” behind that behavior. What would bring a student – or adult, for that matter – to respond the way he or she does?
Everyone should be treated with respect. Those who are disrespectful to others likely have been treated disrespectfully themselves, the vicious cycle may continue until it is broken by the recognition of the inherent worth of the individual. Looking at my mom from a middle-class frame of reference, you might see a woman who wrote bad checks and sold her food stamps. Looking at my dad, you might see a man who drank Mad Dog wine and smoked Pall Mall cigarettes. Looking at my parents from the perspective of living in poverty, I saw my mom as the one who could get food on the table and keep heat on when all the money was gone. The bad checks were for groceries – selling food stamps was to pay our electric bill. My dad was not born an alcoholic; he became one after years of working sixteen hours a day, being paid very little cash, and saying to my mom, “Ruth, should I give all this money to the landlord, or do you want to me to keep a little back for groceries?” Cigarettes were a way to calm his nerves in the war zone of poverty that we lived in. He eventually became an alcoholic to escape the pain of living in a social system that sent strong messages that, as a man, he was a failure because he could not take care of his family. I saw my dad as funny, intelligent, strong, and talented.”
Two more books on poverty I'd recommend if you’d like to understand more about poverty are:
#TeamMitchellBoys is raising awareness this month and also fund for Peoria Home. Peoria Home is just one place where we can put our deepening understanding to practice.