Thursday, June 5, 2008

Poverty is the Ruin of the Poor

The wealth of the rich is their fortified city but poverty is the ruin of the poor.

I've been mulling over this verse from Proverbs 11:22 for quite some time. Initially it came to me as I was preparing a lesson for the girls I disciple on Saturdays. The message is not that being poor in and of itself is wrong, it is the mentality that comes with poverty that ruins people. This truth has never been more real to me than since I moved back to my birth city and started working with a group of "at risk" middle school girls.

One of the times we met we talked about dress and one of the things I always say is "cover up the girl friends." Well, during the course of our lesson, one of the girls commented as to why she should change how she dresses "just to get a job." I immediately told her that I wouldn't hire her with an attitude like that. My lesson turned toward business and the importance of appearance. Then it dawned on me, perhaps they don't want to change, that is the poverty mentality.

A reading program I started kicked off this past Tuesday. I was expecting the kids from the "at risk" neighborhood in Kirkwood to show up. I went to the individually, told them how they could "earn" $10 for every book they read over the summer. I have everyone from the mayor to business owners to ordinary citizens matching my $100 start-up. A major church is collecting the money and has opened their facilities for the end-of-summer celebration. Businesses have donated weekly prizes including gift cards. Everything is laid out on the table, but they didn't come.

That reminded me of a story in the Bible where the host had prepared a great feast and the invited guests didn't show up so he sent his servants out to bring in anyone he could find. The servant went back after the host told him to go get more people to fill the banquet hall. My actions on Tuesday reminded me of this because the "invited" guest who were personally recruited, who signed up, who received flyers in the mail from the school, who needed to come - didn't bother. I ended up with kids who don't qualify for the end prize but who had parents committed to their education.

It brought me to my father and how he wore a shirt, tie, and dress pants as a high schooler to walk five miles twice a day for his education. He instilled in me a sense of responsibility and accountability for my education. He created a desire and hunger in me to be better than the stereotypes of a black person and a woman dictated in 1979 when I started high school. Daddy is the reason I pursued my MBA with three sons in tow. He is the reason I keep reading and still love libraries.

Do poor people just not care or is it that the neighborhood thinks the larger community "owes" them something? My muse on this could get into areas where debate will rage, but today, I feel like no one owes them anything. White people did not stop them from walking to the library, white or rich people or the illusive "them" did not make them dress like they were ready to go pole dancing and butcher the English language. It made me wonder about the mentality that would leave grocery carts on the side of the road or not pick up the trash in the front yard. Poverty mentality at work is illustrated in the loss of pride and sense of victimhood.

The thoughts make me realize that perhaps Bill Cosby had a point. I don't agree with everything he says in relations to lower economic black people, but some of it is true. Listening to the girls I work with, I know some will openly talk about and sceme how to steal from Wal*Mart instead of saving their money. I've seen more name brand gym shoes in the poorer neighborhood than I've seen in my middle class neighborhood. Spending money on books is second nature to me, I am looking toward the future and teaching my children to look to the future. Perhaps that is the missing lesson. Perhaps this is the problem.

I'm not sure, I know it has bothered me for weeks now. Nothing is stopping them from having a life better than circumstances or their parents choices forced into their reality. Yet, I find they know the words of all the latest songs but won't pick up a book to read. I know I'm being too broad in my comments because I can still see a sparkle of light and hope in some of the kids. I know some of them have very good GPAs and study. The problem is the existence of the few who would show up at 8th grade graduation barely clothed with multicolored yarns braided in her hair and ended up being a spectacle in front of 181 classmates and their families.

My heart is wondering and my mind is searching for reasons. All of this as I celebrate the historical moment Senator Barack Obama became the Democratic Party's Nominee for President of the United States. I am not self-hating nor a "black" conservative, I am just a mother and a teacher and can see the destruction before my eyes.

Tomorrow will be a new day. I will continue to mull this over. Forty years later and change is coming. I hope it reaches to the culture of poverty and gives them a view of the top. It is possible. All it takes is a dream.

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