Escaping poverty: Why a job isn’t enough

In the 1800s, if you were poor and didn’t have family or friends to take care of you, you could be sold at auction to a bidder who would provide room and board in return for your free labor. With little recourse to protect the poor from abuse, they were often treated the same as slaves. The mentality that views the poor as second-class may not be as extreme today, but it still exists. People think: If only they would work harder, they wouldn’t be poor.

The truth of course is that you aren’t likely to get out of poverty by simply working hard at a menial job. No one in any place in the U.S. can afford a two-bedroom apartment if they’re employed at minimum wage. Getting out of poverty often requires obtaining an education and a skill. But, as Donna Beegle of Tigard, Ore., the author of “See Poverty, Be the Difference,” explained this week, there’s nothing easy about even appreciating school, let alone excelling at it, when you grow up in poverty.

It has a lot to do with experience and language. If your family is being evicted, or you have to take care of your siblings because your mother works nights, you aren’t likely to finish your homework. If your mother can’t read, you aren’t likely to have the language skills necessary to meet test standards. If you don’t know anyone whose job required even a high school education, let alone a college degree, you aren’t likely to pursue a career that requires a degree. In Maine, the likelihood of these things happening is real. More than 20 percent of children live in poverty.

Beegle, 52, who now has a doctorate in educational leadership, grew up in generational, migrant labor poverty and is speaking in Maine this week to educators, legislators, medical personnel, behavioral and mental health specialists, business leaders, clergy and bankers — in Dover-Foxcroft, Orono and Blue Hill — to urge deeper understanding of poverty. It comes in many forms: For instance, there is generational poverty, where the same pattern repeats; situational poverty, where people are poor for a shorter while and speak the language of the middle class; working class poverty, where people work but don’t make a living; and immigrant poverty. You can’t fully address each kind in the same way.

Beegle, who was born near Phoenix, Ariz., was a smart child. By the age of 12, she knew in which prisons she could find her relatives. (She’s the only member of her family to not be incarcerated.) She knew how to find free clothes and food, how to fix a car without any money for a mechanic or parts, how to cash a check without photo ID, and how to ease a toothache with super glue. She knew how much electricity cost and where to go when the utilities were turned off. She knew how to pick moss off trees to sell for money to buy food. She knew how to squeeze into a car with her parents and five brothers to sleep.

Teachers at school didn’t speak her language. They told her to look up the words she didn’t understand in the dictionary, and when she did she only found more words she didn’t recognize. She’d often write to her brother Wayne, who was spending his 12 years in prison reading everything he could, to ask him to explain her studies. He’d respond in long letters, using the common language they shared.

She dropped out at age 15. School didn’t feed her family, and she saw no reason to stay. It was a place where people treated her like she didn’t belong. It wasn’t until she was 26 that she attended a “Women in Transition” class and, for the first time, met a woman who had made it out of poverty. She decided to earn her GED, doing so in just weeks, surprising herself and her teachers.

While taking care of her two children, she then enrolled at Mount Hood Community College in Gresham, Ore., even though it meant her welfare check would be cut in half. Her diploma from that school was the first in her family’s history. She continued on to the University of Portland where she met professor Bob Fulford and graduated with honors. She and Fulford formed the organization she now leads, Communication Across Barriers, in 1989. In 2011, she won the Oregon Ethics in Business Award.

For the last 23 years she has spoken and done seminars across the country to educate people about the realities of poverty. The events aim to create a network for those with and without low incomes, to help bring the two worlds together. Her Opportunity Community conferences, for example, connect low-income workers with navigators, who can be anyone in the community (lawyers, business people, clergy). Those navigators are later available a couple times per month to provide their neighbors with direction and resources, such as how to fill out a medical form or where to sign up to earn their GED.

It seems simple: Getting people to talk to one another.

The point is to build a more connected, empathetic community and lift people in crisis out of the isolation they so often experience. Eight states are currently using the model. In Oregon, for instance, her efforts are a part of the Oregon Prosperity Initiative to reduce the poverty rate over a 10-year period.

“I grew up believing people didn’t care,” Beegle said. She later learned, “They did care, but they didn’t have a clue.”

What can you do? To start, study the issue. Learn about it. People who have grown up in poverty are often the harshest judges of others with low incomes because, even though they have lived it, they haven’t studied it, Beegle said. They might not fully recognize how poverty changes the way people think and what they prioritize.

Then, get involved in local organizations working to eliminate poverty and build the connections. The policy priorities will, hopefully, follow.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.