Addressing poverty from the inside out

Mother Teresa once remarked that the “greatest disease in the West…is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for.” She went on to say that the poverty in the West is poverty of loneliness, but also of spirituality. 

Physical poverty is real in America. In a city like Richmond nearly 40% of our children experience it every day. And 15 million children across the nation live in families below the poverty line. It is America’s shame and a topic that scarcely surfaced in the presidential campaign. But Mother Teresa was pointing to a deeper truth. 

In a sobering column, Growing Up Poor in America

, the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof describes the home of a 13-year-old boy in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, who has three televisions in his room, but there is no food and no books in the house. “The home, filthy and chaotic with a broken front door, reeks of marijuana.” 

Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s latest book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, documents the different experiences of families navigating changing economic times in his home town of Port Clinton, Ohio. In Putnam’s youth, kids of different income levels played sports and interacted socially together; “civic engagement and solidarity were high; and opportunities for kids born in the lower echelon to scale the socioeconomic ladder were abundant.” Today Port Clinton is “a split-screen American nightmare in which kids from the wrong side of the tracks that dissect the town can barely imagine the future that awaits kids from the right side of the tracks.” 

Putnam writes that “an unexpected consensus has begun to crystallize across ideological lines that the collapse of the working-class family is a central contributor to the growing opportunity gap.” A child with a mother in the bottom educational quartile is almost twice as likely to live with a single mother as a child whose mother is in the top quartile. Putnam’s carefully documented case studies track the experiences of children from well-educated middle-class families and contrasts them with the challenges facing kids whose parents have a high school education or less and are struggling economically. 

Putnam acknowledges that changes in the economy are important contributing factors in the weakening of family structures. Unemployment, underemployment and poor economic prospects discourage marriage and stable relationships. But he also notes that gender and sexual norms have changed: “For poor men, the disappearance of the stigma associated with premarital sex and nonmarital birth, and the evaporation of the norm of shotgun marriages, broke the link between procreation and marriage. For educated women, the combination of birth control and greatly enhanced professional opportunity made delayed childbearing both more possible and desirable.” 

President Obama, in a thoughtful review of “unfinished business” for the Economist

, highlights the need to address rising inequality. While most economists focus on technology, education, globalization, declining unions and falling minimum wages, he believes that “changes in culture and values have played a major role” in widening the gap. He notes that in previous decades “differences in pay between corporate executives and their workers were constrained by a greater degree of social interaction between employees at all levels – at church, at their children’s schools, in civic organizations.” 

As a society we are communicating very mixed messages to our children. This is particularly evident on college campuses where students enter what one professor calls “a culture of moral, emotional and social chaos.” The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that alcohol is a factor in 97,000 cases of sexual assaults annually among college-age students. A drunken fray by Michigan students caused more than $400,000 in damage to their vacation hotel rooms. Harvard – one of the world’s most privileged institutions – cancelled the the rest of the season of the men’s soccer team following revelations of a so-called scouting report that rated the sexual appeal of their female counterparts. Is it any surprise that graduates from our universities display selfish and irresponsible behavior when they get to Wall Street? 

The elevation of tolerance as a primary virtue can leave people adrift without any guidelines for personal conduct and public action. If there are no objective moral benchmarks, how can anyone claim that one value is superior to another? We see a growing social consciousness on issues such as women’s rights, and the need to protect the environment and to fight corruption; but relativism can end up actually being in conflict with widely acknowledged values of respect, equality, and honesty.  

To return to the starting point for this blog: poverty is a moral challenge for the richest nation on earth. Liberals and conservatives should find common cause in addressing it. But as Kristof writes, “Liberals too often are reluctant to acknowledge that struggling, despairing people sometimes compound their misfortune by self-medicating or engaging in irresponsible, self-destructive behavior. And conservatives too often want to stop the conversation there, without acknowledging our society’s irresponsible self-destructive refusal to help children who are otherwise programmed for failure.” 

We must work at structural change and “inner” change at the same time. We need just policies and personal responsibility. One without the other is unlikely to be effective. We must hold ourselves, communities and institutions accountable in areas where change is needed.