Systemic Barriers to Success
There is a stereotype of people living in poverty that they are lazy, addicted, ignorant, or intentionally taking advantage of the system. Some even try to argue that the poor actually want to be poor and dependent on the rest of ‘us’ to take care of them. What utter nonsense. Of course there are people who take advantage of the system; just like there are middle class and rich people who cheat on their taxes and steal from their employers. No one behavior defines an entire group or class of people. There are good people and there are bad people; rich, poor and in-between.
What we do know is that many of those who suffer in poverty, dependence, and need do so because of systemic barriers to success. They are forced to deal with barriers that exist as a result of the structures of our society. Some of these barriers are intentional and are rooted in historic racism while others exist because of economic development policies that drive inequality and inhibit opportunity. Many of them are invisible and difficult to address.
One of the most prevalent of these systemic barriers is isolation and lack of social mobility. Inadequate transportation prevents people from accessing jobs, education, and housing that can provide upward mobility. Food deserts prevent people from getting adequate nutrition which is a factor in work performance, illness, and school attendance. And so the cycle of poverty is reinforced, and opportunities to break generational poverty are lost.
Institutional barriers to overcoming poverty, dependence, and need deny people the opportunity to get the support they need to achieve stability and self-sufficiency.
An education system that all too often isolates underperforming poor kids with other underperforming poor kids and which doesn’t have the financial resources enjoyed by schools in more economically advantaged neighborhoods hurts a child’s chance to break out of poverty.
A financial/banking system that denies poor and credit challenged individuals bank accounts and forces them to use payday lenders, title loan providers, and check cashing services that may skim 20% or more off their already limited income just for the right to cash their check forces those who are trying to get ahead to take one step back for every two steps forward.
A criminal justice system that warehouses people instead of rehabilitating them and which scars them with the scarlet letter of ‘felon’ for life puts people back on the street who can’t get jobs, housing, support, or respect. And then we wonder why they commit crimes again.
Fragmented social service systems where people have to take unpaid time from work, pay for child care they can’t afford, and maybe take two buses and a train to get somewhere so they can sit half a day waiting to be helped creates humiliation, despair, and hopelessness.
Do the situations described above exist universally? No. Some may argue that in fact I am guilty of ‘stereotyping’ our social systems with these descriptions. And there may be some truth in that. But until we acknowledge and correct the systemic barriers that keep people in a cycle of poverty, dependence, and need that prevents them from achieving stability and self-sufficiency, stereotypes about a system that oppresses will be infinitely more real than those that are held about the poor. If we continue to blame people for their oppression, we can never find real solutions.