Is it possible to believe that there are structural issues that nurture poverty while also believing that people sometimes contribute to their own demise through their own thoughts and actions? This is not a new debate and is often the cornerstone of tension in our public and private discourse. Based on this, there are generally two groups of “poverty thinkers”.
The first group believes that our ability to succeed in this world is largely tied to our individual effort. When an individual is successful, this group attributes that success to work ethic and ingenuity. Similarly, when one falls short of achieving what the vast majority of us believe is the American standard of success, it is generally perceived as failure of character. I came from a household where there were four kids and a mom. Mom never lived up to the American standard of success…she never married, there were multiple dads, we never had a permanent home and, because of her life choices, she ended up meeting an early death. For some, this is a failure of character.
The second group believes that our ability to succeed in this world is tied to larger structural forces. When one is successful, this group attributes that success to family stability, networks, laws, Zip code, access to well-paying jobs and social capital. Where and to whom someone is born absolutely matters—these are all structural advantages or disadvantages. When one falls short of the American standard of success, this group believes it is principally due to forces beyond control and often looked at through a geographical, racial and/or gender lens. My mother was born to poor, uneducated black parents, who themselves came from a line of poor, uneducated people who were marginalized, victimized and prevented from participating in mainstream society. For some, because of this structure of exclusion from prior generations, mom never had much of a chance to begin with.
There are absolutely structural challenges that prevent some from excelling, and there are some, who no matter the station they are born in life, will squander both potential and opportunity. Let’s continue to question and meditate on what it takes to overcome poverty and achieve success.