Getting to know those who live in poverty
In January of 2015, St. Vincent de Paul Georgia and the Atlanta Regional Commission partnered to present a half-day summit on transportation and equity in the metro Atlanta area. The keynote for the event, Rebecca Burns, who is now the publisher for The Red & Black, offered a piece of insight that has always stuck with me. She asked the members of the audience to consider how intimately we knew people who were struggling with poverty, not in an abstract or fleeting sense of knowing, but in a real, well developed relationship way. How often do any of us from middle and upper-middle class environments interact with, share meals with, and have real meaningful conversations with those living in poverty?
Odds are, for most of us, the answer is: not very often.
Over the past 16 years, poverty in the US has shifted from urban and rural areas to the suburbs, which have seen the fastest and largest growth of poverty. It seems that this shift would create more opportunities for integration along class lines. Shifting economic demographics could lead to expanded perspectives and create more diverse socioeconomic communities. Instead what has happened, as recent Brookings Institute research indicates, is the development of concentrated poverty pockets in suburban regions. Thus, even as the geography of low-income areas shifts, the isolation along class lines persists.
The shift in where people who are experience poverty live could bring with it increased opportunities for developing the close friendships and relationships outside of our socioeconomic class, but the actual development of these relationships does not seem to have happened. Isolating ourselves across class lines, however, has a detrimental effect on real progress.
It is difficult for any of us to rally around a cause that we have not experienced first hand. Therefore creating collective attempts to chip away at the many barriers and obstacles that those living in poverty face as part of their everyday reality is a difficult task to achieve. Without personal connections to the struggles that low-income communities face, rallying large-scale support for policy and service delivery models that actually have positive effects will be nearly impossible.
Those living in poverty in our communities face an array of obstacles: low quality housing, reliance on public transportation, lack of quality healthcare, diminished access to nutritious, affordable food, and the list goes on. The detrimental effects of these obstacles are difficult to understand if you haven’t experienced them first-hand, or if you do not have real, meaningful relationships with anyone who has. For that reason, an important step in alleviating poverty in our communities is engaging and developing relationships with those who experience poverty as part of their daily realities. This engagement will lead to broaden perspectives which will help improve the lives of those experiencing poverty.