Mississippi is my home state. When Mississippians admit their roots, they often hear stereotypical responses that drip with mockery, innuendo and misunderstanding. So we develop certain coping mechanisms, like the self-effacing joke I’ve used for years: “Yeah, I didn’t start wearing shoes until I got married!” It provides comic relief, gives my friends something to laugh about, and allows the awkward moment to pass. Maybe that’s why our state bird is called the “Mockingbird” (just kidding).
When most people think about Mississippi, three subjects usually come to mind: poverty, ignorance, and racism. When I looked up the most recent (2006) statistical rankings for “Percent of People 25 Years and Over Who Have Completed High School,” my birthplace ranks 77.9%â€”dead last among the fifty states. It also ranks last for median housing value, median family income, percent of people below poverty level, and percent of people 25 years and over who have completed an advanced degree. The Magnolia State also leads the others with the highest percentage (37.4%) of people who would identify themselves as black or African American alone (versus being another race or mixture of more than one race); and everyone knows we have been a hotbed of racism since the state’s formation in 1817. When tensions erupted over slavery, Mississippi was the second state to secede from the Union, probably due to its reliance on the cotton industry and the nearly 437,000 slaves (55% of the state’s population in 1860) that worked the land for the wealthy kings of cotton.
Both of my parents grew up in poverty: my mother was raised on a dairy farm and my father lived in a two-bedroom shack as the youngest of four children in a nearby town. His father was an abusive alcoholic for many years, barely keeping food on the table, until he became a Christian. After his conversion, my grandfather became a respected barber in the town until his retirement. I can remember the first time it dawned on me that my paternal grandparents fell into the category of “white trash”â€”a horrible description that robs people of their humanityâ€”but I still loved them and cherish the memories of my visits to their ramshackled house on the “other side of the tracks.” The houses in the above photograph are just a few blocks from that little shack, now torn down and replaced with a newer home.
My parents struggled to break out of poverty: my dad worked his way up from reading gas meters to managing a small gas utility company in northwest Mississippi and my mom was an amazing entrepreneur with a keen sense for business opportunities. She owned and operated half a dozen different businessesâ€”a cafe, a women’s dress shop, self-employed seamstress, and a care home for the elderlyâ€”in addition to working for banks, insurance companies, and department stores. We would have been considered on the lower fringe of middle-class by the time I reached my teens. If I learned anything from watching my parents raise a family, it was the lesson that hard work and determination can overcome many financial and other sorts of hardships. “No one’s gonna hand you anything on a silver platter!” It was one of those things I remember hearing around our dining table, as well as things like, “You’ll get out of it exactly what you put into it.” ClichÃ©s to some, perhaps, but they were lifelines and anchors for me.
I wouldn’t trade the memories of growing up poor for the opportunity to live in a palace from birth. It’s part of who I am and it gives me a sense of identity with the poor, although one might argue that we really do not understand real poverty in the western world. But I disagree with that notion. On my last trip to the states, I was introduced to a really great book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby K. Payne, PhD, the leading U. S. expert on the mindsets of poverty, middle class, and wealth. She gives twelve key points in the introduction:
- Poverty is relative.
- Poverty occurs in all races and in all countries.
- Economic class is a continuous line, not a clear-cut distinction.
- Generational poverty and situational poverty are different.
- This work is based on patterns. All patterns have exceptions.
- An individual brings with him/her the hidden rules of the class in which he/she was raised.
- Schools and businesses operate from middle-class norms and use the hidden rules of middle class.
- For our students to be successful, we must understand their hidden rules and teach them the rules that will make them successful at school and work.
- We can neither excuse students nor scold them for not knowing; as educators we must teach them and provide support, insistence, and expectations.
- To move from poverty to middle class or middle class to wealth, an individual must give up relationships for achievement (at least for some period of time).
- Two things that help one move out of poverty are education and relationships.
- Four reasons one leaves poverty are: It’s too painful to stay, a vision or goal, a key relationship, or a special talent or skill.
When the above author speaks of poverty as being “relative,” she goes on the explain that “If everyone around you has similar circumstances, the notion of poverty and wealth is vague. Poverty or wealth only exists in relationship to known quantities or expectations.” [p. 2] That really makes a lot of sense to me; and it also explains the meaning behind the words, “We didn’t know we were poor!” Have you ever heard an old-timer make such a remark as they tell the story of their life? I couldn’t count the times!
So what is poverty? I worked for a very wealthy family at one point in my business career. They had it all, it seemed to me: he drove a shiny new Jaguar, she owned a new sports convertible, they lived in a house ten times the size of mine (with only one child), and their horse barn was bigger and nicer than my house. One day I was showing my work colleagues a photograph of my houseâ€”rather proud of a fresh coat of paint I had applied one weekendâ€”and my rich employer’s wife remarked, “That’s a cute little bungalow.” I was crushed! She might as well have referred to my home as a shack, as I remembered the embarrassing little structure where my grandparents lived and died. We felt really blessed to live in a four-bedroom, two bath home on a nice boulevard in a middle-class neighborhood, but it was just a “bungalow” compared to her mansion. But relatively speaking, she was wealthy and I was poor.
Dr. Payne defines poverty as “the extent to which an individual does without resources”  and then she defines resources as the following:
- Financial: Having the money to purchase goods and services
- Emotional: Being able to choose and control emotional responses, particularly to negative situations, without engaging in self-destructive behavior.
- Mental: Having the mental abilities and acquired skills (reading, writing, computing) to deal with daily life.
- Spiritual: Believing in divine purpose and guidance.
- Physical: Having physical health and mobility.
- Support Systems: Having friends, family, and backup resources available to access in times of need.
- Relationships/Role Models: Having frequent access to adult(s) who are appropriate, who are nurturing to the child, and who do not engage in self-destructive behavior.
- Knowledge of Hidden Rules: Knowing the unspoken cues and habits of a group.
This is a very helpful framework when it comes to thinking about poverty, because we often think of poverty only in terms of doing without financial resources. But poverty is much more than that, isn’t it? It seems to me that you could have an abundance of the last seven resources and very little money, but you would be much less impoverished than someone who just had a lot of money in the bank without any of the latter resources.
I would be very interested in hearing from you. Do you have any experience in poverty: personally or through working with those in poverty? Could you join this conversation about what it means to be poor and whether we can “make poverty history”?