The Culture of Poverty

I am not an expert in poverty nor in economic culture. If there are any mistakes in this post, I likely understood it incorrectly. I hope that this post inspires you to go learn more about the social groups in our society and how we can all work more effectively together.


Bridges out of Poverty taught by Jodi Pfarr was a fascinating class about how the cultures of individuals living in the middle class is different than individuals living in poverty.

For individuals in poverty, values are centered around relationships. Titles are not important. Relationships you have with people are where you place your trust.  Life is focused on the present and problems are all interlocking. Individuals in poverty spend time worrying about things like child care, housing, agencies and transportation.

An example Jodi gave of relationship based values was to take the situation where a little girl is starting school. Her older brother takes her around and introduces her to people. When he gets to the janitor, he says the janitor is good people. His sister listens and understands that the janitor is someone to be trusted. If that little girl is having trouble in school, who do you think will have more influence on getting her to do her homework, the principal or the janitor? The janitor, according to Jodi, because she’s trusted.

For individuals in the middle class, values are centered around achievement. Trust is placed with those with titles – they trust the principal, they trust the judge, they trust the police officer based on their position, not because they know them. Individuals in the middle class trust or at least respect and listen to people with the appropriate titles. Those are the people they go to for help. Life is achievement based, future focused and problems are contained. Their sister’s kid getting sick will not keep them from going to work. Middle class individuals spend time thinking about cost of childcare and education, retirement, credit card debt and careers.

Jodi also touched briefly on individuals living in wealth. Their values are centered around connections: political, financial and social. They are generational focused and problems are controlled. They spend time thinking about things like associations, travel, events and politics.

Understanding that people in different wealth brackets have different cultures, not just different problems, you can develop better systems that realize that these are systematic issues not individual choice. Jodi gave examples of how this understanding had greatly improved services for individuals in poverty. For example, a set of judges decided to try doing a first come, first serve system on Fridays. They reduced warrants by 70%! The theory was that individuals in poverty have difficulty with transportation and often have to adjust their schedule to help out others (or their own ride disappears). It’s easier for them to pick a day and show up when they can and wait as long as needed than it is for them to make it at 8:15 on a particular Wednesday. People in the middle class find that extremely inconvenient and often fail to understand why it works better for people in poverty. If we include representatives from all groups as we make policies and seek to understand and not judge, we can make systems that are much more effective.

The class was taught by Jodi Pfarr who did an excellent job of explaining both the culture and values of middle class versus poverty. The class was aimed at people who provide services for those in poverty, mostly non-profits and government agencies, and almost all middle class people. In Fort Collins, Colorado, this class is occasionally offered for free to the public by the Bohemian Foundation.

Additional Reading:

Can or Can’t?

Can read or can’t eat books?

What I love about open source is that it’s a “can” world by default. You can do anything you think needs doing and nobody will tell you that you can’t. (They may not take your patch but they won’t tell you that you can’t create it!)

It’s often easier to define things by what they are not or what we can’t do. And the danger of that is you create a culture of “can’t”. Any one who has raised kids or animals knows this. “No, don’t jump.” You can’t jump on people. “No, off the sofa.” You can’t be on the furniture. “No, don’t lick!” You can’t slobber on me. And hopefully when you realize it, you can fix it. “You can have this stuffed animal (instead of my favorite shoe). Good dog!”

Often when we aren’t sure how to do something, we fill the world with can’ts. “I don’t know how we should do this, but I know you can’t do that on a proprietary mailing list.” “I don’t know how I should lose weight, but I know you can’t have dessert.” I don’t know. Can’t. Don’t know. Can’t. Unsure. Can’t.

Watch the world around you. Is your world full of can’ts or full of “can do”s? Can you change it for the better?

Bribes or fines?

Do bribes or fines work in your work culture? When your culture changes, some of it will feel like bribes and some of it will feel like fines. It all depends on your cultural background.


I was recently in a small town in Mexico and the (new) city government was explaining to us the changes they were trying to make. At first, I was a bit baffled about why they were spending so much time explaining how things worked. They were explaining how if you damaged someone’s property, it wasn’t that you shouldn’t compensate them. It was just that you should compensate them through a fine and a process, instead of a payoff. That it should be done through the system.

And then it clicked for me. They were trying to change their town’s culture.

The town had a culture of just settling it between the two parties. And they wanted people to obey the laws, the process and the judicial system. Where I live, it just taken for granted that if you get in a car accident, you call the police and the insurance company. Then you, the police and the insurance company work out who owes who what. In their culture, that wasn’t the way it had worked. And in order to change how it worked, they were having to explain the new system and how it worked.

And it occurred to me that the same thing is happening in my work place. Mozilla has grown from 250 people when I joined to around a 1,000 people now. And we’ve added a bunch of awesome people with varied skill sets and backgrounds in order to make us stronger. And all of us have different cultures when it comes to how things get done. Some of us file a bug for everything – even a new cable that you need or an idea for an AB test on a website. Some of us create a slideshow for new ideas. Some of us expect a discussion on an open mailing list. Some of us expect a smaller team to come to an agreement before we open the discussion wider.

Some of the ways we decide as a group to do things are going to feel very natural (why would you have to tell someone to call their insurance company after an accident?) and some are going to feel a bit more like bribes or unnecessary process. (What do you mean I have to open 3 bugs and cc 4 departments?) But together we all have to come up with our new culture.

So, back in this small town in Mexico, I ate my bean and cheese stuffed poblano pepper, covered in a sauce that made my eyes water, and nodded. What do I know about turning payoffs into fines?

Why do you have to pay employees to do the right thing?

Photo by eyetoeye

Energizer Battery Company is rewarding employees for flying coach. If employees fly coach, the company splits the difference with them – up to $2,000 for trips to Europe.

This just seems really strange. Let’s put aside the fact that employees are now getting a $1,000 bonus for flying to Europe, so they may be inclined to fly more. (That’s about $50/hour to sit in an economy seat! I’d consider a job doing that.)

At first glance this seems like an awesome deal. The company saves money, employees make money, everyone’s happy.  I’d be a lot richer if I got this deal. But I fly coach without an incentive. Or rather the incentive is that I think the GNOME Foundation can do better things with that money.

That’s the key. Obviously, that business class seat isn’t worth the the $2,000 more the company was paying for it. It’s not even worth half that much to the employee! The company is counting on the employee being willing to sit in economy for $1,000.

So why were employees flying business? Because they didn’t care that the company would be $2,000 poorer. They don’t think the company will do anything more important to do with that money than fly them in business. They either don’t have enough say in how the company makes financial decisions or enough visibility into the process to feel like that money would be wisely used. Or they don’t care about what the company is trying to do.

That is what this company is missing. Employees need to know the money they are saving is going to go to good use. It’s hard to stay in a budget hotel if you know your CEO is staying in a 5 star hotel. It’s easy to stay in a budget hotel if you know your company is going to ship 10 more computers to underprivileged kids with the $2,000 you saved.

The bigger problem here is that employees are either not bought into the company’s mission or they do not trust the company’s financial decision process.

Meeting someone in jail: what a ridiculous process

The jail visitation process is obviously not made with the visitor’s convenience in mind. And definitely not with the detainee’s convenience in mind.

I have to meet with someone who’s in jail. (Don’t ask. It’s not anyone I’m close to but I’ve got to talk to this person.) Actually, I’m not even sure if it’s jail or detention center or holding or what. So here’s how it works in Larimer County:

  • You cannot call someone in jail. You can send them a snail mail letter or you can schedule a visit with them.
  • Regardless of when the person is arrested, you can only call to schedule a visit on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 11am-1pm. This is not when you can visit, this is when you can call.
  • Visits happen on Wednesdays and Thursdays (scheduled on Tuesday) and on Saturdays and Tuesdays (scheduled on Thursdays). The hours are not clear to me but I was given a choice of 8:30-10:30 on Wednesday morning or some time Thursday evening.
  • Each person is allowed one visitor a day.
  • It’s first come, first serve. I got advice to start calling at two minutes to 11:00 and to keep hitting redial until I got through. I hit redial for 12 minutes and then was on hold for another 15 minutes or so.
  • The detainee has no say. You don’t have to prove any relationship or business either. So if you want to screw someone in jail, I suppose you could just go see them everyday so they could never see their friends or family.
  • You can’t carry in anything like paper or pen or pencil. I need a name and phone number so I guess I’ll have to memorize it somehow!

So this person was arrested last week. Wednesday is the first time anyone can visit them and it’s going to be a stranger. Obviously they must have some cause for the arrest but there’s been no trial and no conviction. And yet, they have no freedom. (Note, they haven’t posted bail which I believe is an option.)

Moral of the story: don’t get arrested. It looks like you lose most of your rights in the process.

UPDATE: You have to go through a metal detector but they turned it off for my group because one of the women had a pace maker. They then took us upstairs in an elevator with no buttons. (The women walkie-talkied to someone who controlled it remotely.) They then dropped us off (and left us) in a room with four windows with stools in front and telephones. The windows faced the main detention center with all the prisoners walking around on the other side. You talk through the telephone to the prisoner on the other side – just like the movies. We were left there for 30 minutes. I finished my business in 30 seconds and I had a few minutes of "oh, no!" when I realized there was no way to call the elevator back or leave the room. After a few minutes of searching I found the intercom button and managed to get them to send the elevator back up for me.

Nobody would have noticed if I’d carried in a pen and paper.

Should single moms settle?

I have several friends who are single moms "on purpose" – they got pregnant knowing there would be no dad in the picture. We actually used to debate the best way to get pregnant without involving a guy – we came up with some creative and often hilarious ideas. (Hilarious as long as they didn’t apply to me and you didn’t consider the morality and ethics too closely!) My friends that are now single moms all profess to be happy with their decisions but I admit that I often wonder if they are being honest.

Today’s Atlantic Monthly magazine article Marry Him! was written by a single mom who says she regrets it. Her advice to women is to settle and marry the best guy they find without waiting for Mr. Perfect because almost any guy will be better than no husband. 

I think she’s wrong.  While I think it’s possible that some women are too picky, (they aren’t perfect, so why do they expect a guy to be perfect?) I don’t think you should marry a guy because you are looking for a child raising partner. You’ll only have kids at home for 20 years and most people having kids can expect to live another 40-50 years! Having someone to watch the kids for 20 minutes while you eat lunch is not a good reason to marry someone. (If you don’t have someone, it might be a reason not to have a kid, but that’s for another post.)

I think our approach to child rearing needs to change. Very few kids have two parents that are married and living in the same home. Some have one parent, some have two, some have four or more! Some kids have one home, many have two, and some have three or more! Some parents have 80% of the responsibility, some have 20%, some have Mondays and Tuesdays, some have weekends. 

What we need are better ways to connect parents to others like them. We need better daycare options for parents that need to go on dates, more flexible work environments for parents that need to attend a school play or doctor appointment, more daycare options closer to home and work, more work from home options (to save on commutes), etc.

Connecting parents to other parents like them is the one I’d most like to see. Most the Mommy and Me get togethers are for stay at home parents. While I can flex my time and make the meetings, I meet people who don’t have the same interests as me. When I meet parents at games or school events, we don’t really have enough time to connect.

A friend of mine has worked out an agreement where she watches her friend’s kid two mornings a week and the friend watches her kid two mornings a week so they both get some kid free time. I liked that. More of that would be good. Now if I just knew people in my neighborhood with little kids. Think they are on Facebook? (Once your kids are school age, it’s easier to find other families.)

So I think single moms face all the same problems that married moms face, they just don’t have a built-in partner to commiserate with.  But I think we could find ways to connect moms to people that would help them.  It would help both single moms and married moms … and unmarried moms living with boyfriends/dads.

Some women are still punished for being raped

Rape victim gets 200 lashes. Actually, I think the punishment was for being alone with an unrelated man.  This makes me:

  • sad that some women live without the rights I take for granted,
  • angry that the people around her have accepted and perpetuate this as normal,
  • grateful that I have so much freedom and so many rights,
  • frustrated that I have no idea how to fix something I think is wrong,
  • scared to ever travel to a Muslim country.

What American accent do you have?

I took the quiz, and it should come as no surprise to anyone who knows where I grew up (everywhere) that I have the "default, lowest-common-denominator American accent." Here’s what they said:

What American accent do you have? (Best version so far)


("Midland" is not necessarily the same thing as "Midwest") The default, lowest-common-denominator American accent that newscasters try to imitate.  Since it’s a neutral accent, just because you have a Midland accent doesn’t mean you’re from the Midland.

Personality Test Results

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Which accent do you have?  You can take the quiz.

Will our current corporate culture change?

Escape from the Cubicle Nation by Pamela Slim has a podcast by Dr. Srikumar Rao, Columbia and London Business Schools, author of Are You Ready to Succeed?  My favorite quote was:

I don’t have a work life and a personal life.  I have one life and either it’s working or it’s not.

If you are the same person at work and at home and if you are unhappy at work or at home, you’ll likely be unhappy both at work and at home.

Pamela thinks the corporate environment is so broken that so many people will start leaving to start their own business that corporations will have to change in order to keep people.  Maybe I’m a cynic but I think it’s much easier for people to go into work everyday and collect a paycheck than it is for them to dream up a business model, quit and run a business.   I think corporations and the current corporate culture is around to stay for a while.

One of the reasons that many small business owners are not successful is because they want to do what they love, not run a business.  For example, massage therapists go into massage because they like massage therapy and want to help people and then they discover that you have to run your own business.   Giving massages is not the same as advertising, making business cards, renting an office, scheduling clients, etc.  Running a business is a lot of work.  If you just like writing code or giving massages or fixing cars, you might not be willing to quit your job to start a business of your own.  You might spend a lot less time actually writing code or giving massages.

Which would you prefer, more money or more friends?

I just read a very thought provoking article, Why Having More No Longer Makes Us Happy by Bill McKibben.  The author argues that pursuing more wealth worked well in the past when we didn’t have much material wealth but now that we are a relatively wealthy nation, pursuing more and more wealth is making us less happy not happier.   His main points are:

  1. We are pursuing more and more wealth because it worked in the past,
  2. We are spending less and less time with family and friends,
  3. We are busier and more isolated,
  4. And it isn’t working anymore.

He points out that if you are rich in relationships and poor, more money might make you happy, but if you are poor in relationships and have plenty of money, a new friend will make you much happier than more money.  If you are a peasant in China with lots of relationships and no money, a little money can go a long way towards making you happier but a sixth person living in your house won’t.  On the flip side, if you are an American living in a 2000 square foot house, another friend might make you a lot happier than the money for another coffee maker.

He argues that in the pursuit of wealth, we’ve lost our community.  We spend less and less time with family and friends and more and more time isolated: commuting, working, watching tv, surfing the internet.  And yet studies show that it’s social networks (the real ones, not the virtual ones) that keep us happy and even healthy.  Robert E. Lane, a Yale political
science professor writes that "evidence shows that companionship … contributes more to
well-being than does income."

One point he made that really struck me because I can’t tell you how many people told me that college was going to be the best years of my life and I kept asking, "Why?  Does it go downhill from there?"  Apparently it does if you look at the quality of your relationships.

Why do people so often look back on their college days as the best
years of their lives? Because their classes were so fascinating? Or
because in college, we live more closely and intensely with a community
than most of us ever do before or after?

Something I read recently said that the number of friends we have drops off dramatically after our 20s.  Recently, I’ve realized that I really miss the number of friends I had in my teens and 20s.  I did things with large groups of friends several times a week if not every day.  Now we are lucky if we squeeze something in once a week.  And even when you have time (like when I was on maternity leave), your friends likely won’t have time!

So think about it.  Increasing the time you spend with your friends and extended family will do more to make you happy than a raise at work.  And I’d even argue it’d make you happier than winning the lottery!