The Poverty Cycle

Two memoirs I’ve read recently chronicle the lives of women who were raised in poverty but overcame their circumstances and became successful.

The first of these was My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor. She was raised in the projects in the Bronx and her father died of alcoholism when Sonia was young. Through her own will, intelligence, and the support of her family, she got through Princeton and Yale to become the judge she always wanted to be.

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward told the life of an eldest daughter raised by an eldest daughter. Her father left her mother to raise four children on her own. Jesmyn also had the skills to succeed and go off to the University of Michigan and on to Stanford for her graduate degree.

Both women had people who saw their potential and stepped in to help them. Both women had strong mothers who worked at menial jobs to feed their children. Always there were people outside the family to help.

It’s easy to say that people should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and get themselves from a lousy childhood to a successful adult. From the outside, it seems like anyone who can get to school, have at least one decent meal a day, and avoid being homeless, should be able to get out of high school, score some financial aid for college, and get a decent job. It just isn’t true.

First of all, not all education is equal. In Ward’s memoir it is perfectly clear that there were few supportive teachers, no counseling or testing to diagnosis learning issues, much less tell a student what direction to take after high school. Even if a student made it that far, there were no jobs available. The region once had factories and fishing for young people. The factories were gone and the fishing was mostly played out. This dilemma faces young people everywhere, not just coastal Mississippi.

Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward

Faced with poverty imposed by jobs that pay minimum wage or less, young men turned to dealing and taking drugs. The self loathing and depression that lay like a blanket over these neighborhoods was softened with addictions to drugs or alcohol. There was the fatalistic belief that young men were going to die young so why not be reckless and live for now.  Of the many friends and family in their community, only one young man had both a mother and father together. Young men wouldn’t know what it is to be a good father having no one to model that for them.

Through all of this we all must remember that no one goes it alone. Even without functional parents or grandparents, there have been times when other adults have made the difference between success and failure. The turning point for Jesmyn was when an employer of her mother offered to pay her tuition to a private school. While Jesmyn still felt different, she was able to be a cheerleader, take advanced classes, and meet good teachers.

Not everyone born in poverty has the innate ability that Ward or Sotomayor have. Still, they have special abilities unique to them. The five young men, who died so young, were described as people who had talents with auto repair or taking care of people. They all had at least average intelligence.

When local and state governments today choose to put limited resources into less essential places, they condemn generations to the continual cycle of poverty, despair and unfulfilled lives. Can we afford to do that?