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:

Benazir Bhutto assasinated

Benazir Bhutto was assassinated today and the world is a poorer place for it.  I had the opportunity to see her speak at a Simmons Leadership Conference a few years ago.  I wish I had my notes to share with you (but they were in my company notebook which I had to leave with the company.)  She was inspiring though.  She was doing what she thought was right for her country at great personal expense. 

I wish the best to her family and her country.

Who would you meet during a week in the mall?

This guy spent a week in the Mall of Americas in Minneapolis – all open hours and one night.  It’s an interesting read just for the people he met and the things he tried.  He met one woman who claimed to be a stay-at-home mom who shopped at the mall six days a week and spent over $100,000 a year!

Get rid of the birdfeeder: how to really solve the problem of illegal immigrants

I got an email called "Quite an Analogy" forwarded on by somebody I respect and it made me so mad.  It said we should stop providing housing assistance, emergency medical care and free schools.  Because if we did that all the immigrants would go away and life would be better for us.  No crowding, no mess.  (It was comparing it to the fact that if you put on bird feeders, the birds come and make a mess and pester you for food.  Take down the bird feeders, the birds go away and the mess is solved.)

Let me see, if I stopped feeding my kids, they’d probably go away sooner or later and the house would sure be cleaner and quieter.  Or to make the analogy more accurate, that if the neighbor kids started coming over for food, I should stop feeding the neighbor kids and my kids, so that the neighbor kids (never mind what would happen to mine) would go away.  What kind of reasoning is that??  And it obviously resonates with people – someone forwarded it to me. 

If you want the problem to go away, you need to look at why you have the problem.  It’s not because you put out the bird feeder.  If the emergency rooms are crowded, it’s not because you offer emergency care to everyone, it’s because some people had no where else to go.  Figure out why they don’t have family doctors and help them get them.  It has to be easier and cheaper for them and the emergency rooms to provide care for them some other way.  Personally, I like that the courts have constantly up held our right to emergency care regardless of proof of insurance.

I think people that want to get rid of the bird feeder are just plain lazy.  They aren’t willing to really figure out why we have this problem.  This isn’t the immigrants’ problem.  It’s our problem.  We have to fix it.  Getting rid of the bird feeder will just change the problem, not solve it.   

I take that back.  Getting rid of the bird feeder, if it meant lowering our standard of living to that of Mexico, might solve the problem.  If life was as bad here as there, maybe they wouldn’t come.  If I stop feeding my kids, the neighbor kids will stop coming over for dinner. 

The US has a hefty salary: just compare the individual states to other countries!

The US is wealthy – this map just gives you an idea.  For each state, it lists a country with a similar GDP.  California produces as much as France and Texas produces as much as Canada!  Basically the states produce as much as 50 countries combined!

It would be interesting to somehow include population in the comparison too.  How does the population of California (36 million) compare to the population of France (61 million)?  So actually, the citizens of California produce twice as much per person as the country of France.

I am not saying that producing more is better!  I’m just saying that the US is a wealthy nation.  And on second thought, wealth is not the same as income.  (You can make $100K/year and be in $200K debt or you can make $50K a year and have a million to your name.)  So the US makes a lot of money would probably be a more accurate way of putting it.  We spend a lot too.

Coral is now an endangered species

Some types of coral are now considered threatened under the Endangered Species Act.  From the New York Times, Coral is Dying, Can it Be Reborn?

“We have lost 25 percent of the world’s corals in the last 25 years,”
David E. Vaughan, director of the Center for Coral Reef Research at
Mote, said in an interview, adding that 25 percent more are expected to
die in the next decade or two.

In addition to polluted waters, disease, and environmental factors (like fishing and tourists), global warming is also killing coral:

And then there is global warming.
So far, scientists say, it has had two main effects on coral, both
potentially lethal. First, as oceans absorb more carbon dioxide, the
chief greenhouse gas, they become more acidic. The acidity makes it
more difficult for corals to grow and may even cause them to start to
dissolve. And as oceans warm, algae that live in corals, and on which
they depend, may be killed.

The change is so drastic that I’ve been able to notice the difference over the past ten years.  And it was already happening when I first started diving and snorkeling – we’d see huge expanses of dead coral and at the time I was told it was because the water was too warm for them.  (When you can dive without a wet suit at 100 feet, you know the water is warm!)  It’s very sad that our children won’t get to see what we’ve had the priviledge of seeing.

Do astronauts wear diapers?

When the news came out about the astronaut who wore diapers so she wouldn't have to stop driving my first question was, "yet she took the time to go buy diapers?"  After thinking about it, I decided that astronauts must wear diapers, so she was familiar with the idea and maybe even owned some.  Turns out that astronauts do wear diapers.

Because astronauts sit on the launch pad, strapped into their seats for
over three hours, they all have to wear diapers. Astronauts also wear
diapers when they are working in space during spacewalks which normally
last 5-8 hours.

Our ATV was stolen!

We just had an ATV stolen out of our truck sitting in front of our house.  Frank is smoking a turkey so he happened to be going outside a lot so we know it was stolen between midnight and 1am.  When we called the police the police officer remembered it going north out of town on a Chevy truck.  He put out a wire to the the county sheriff and the police departments of the two towns north of us.  But all the guy(s) that stole it need to do is pull into a garage and wait a few days until the police forget and move on to bigger things.

I googled "stolen ATV" and found three sites for reporting stolen ATVs – so it must be a common and very frustrating problem.  As far as I can tell the sites don’t do anything.  You just get to register that your ATV was stolen.

Sterotypes and prejudices: you’ve got ’em!

Harvard has some Implicit Association Test.  You can test how much you associate career with men or science with men or take a test that checks what associations you might have with muslims or arabs or blacks or whites.

It’s very interesting and highly recommend everyone go take one.  Inspite of being a women in computer science, I showed a slight association between men and career.  So did 76% of people that took the test!  And then we worry about a glass ceiling … for good reason it looks like …

Interestingly enough I show a "slight automatic preference" for gay people over straight people.  I think it was because I didn’t like putting all the negative words with gay people.  I’m used to defending them.  Obviously I must not be so used to defending women in career … I think it’s because the people I hang out with (including those I work with) would never dream of putting down women in careers but gay jokes are still ok.  So I’m used to defending gays but not women.

As for defending minorities, I once found myself telling a group of drunk guys to quit putting down hispanics.  (I debated the wisdom of that afterwards.)  I was quite pleasantly surprised when one of them said, "Good for you, Stormy."

Good, Bad and Right

In this post Gretchen talks really good or bad versus feeling right.  You can feel good about things you do (like giving someone a present or exercising) or you can feel right (like when you’ve made a tough decision like putting a parent or grandparent in assisted living when it was appropriate.)  I think most of us focus on feeling good versus feeling right.  Feeling good has more immediate positive feedback whereas feeling right gives us satisfaction in life.