There is sometimes a perception that low-income people are victims or helpless, as well as another that they are deserving of their economic status because they lack certain skills, ambition or values. A study performed by the Gallup organization reported that 54% of the U.S. population believe that “low self-esteem” was a significant factor in homelessness, and alcoholism a causal factor in 52% of cases, although 94% believed the homeless could lead productive and self-sufficient lives if given the opportunity.(i) Both views tend to understand the low-income population as powerless to get what they need. While this is certainly true of some, for many these judgments may simply be the perceptions of economically or socially privileged people that ignores the ingenuity and creativity expended by low-income people in pursuit of basic survival, especially since more people are fighting for economic survival than in the past.
The low-income population is growing in the United States for a variety of reasons that are not directly related to ability or being victimized, not the least of which is the effects of globalization. Between the years 1999 and 2004 the average U.S. family income decreased 8.8% and all segments of the U.S. population, except the top 15%, experienced increased poverty and/or decreased earnings. (ii) Along with the income trend is the reduction of benefits of many U.S. workers, a pattern that is, as yet, difficult to quantify. The reliance of U.S. companies on U.S. labor is significantly decreasing. While various sources, such as Bureau of Labor Statistics and Business Week, are citing growth in both high and low paying jobs, they also report that the high paying jobs require considerable re-education as they are in areas like healthcare and computer industries. (iii) The segment seeing the most significant decline is medium and high-medium paying positions, with many workers formerly in this category accepting lower paying jobs or experiencing long-term unemployment.(iv) The most recent report of the Bureau of Labor stated that unemployment had hit 5%.
Along with the overall increase in poverty and un- or under-employment, other associated factors have been on the increase. In 2006, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported that requests for shelter by homeless people had increased 9% during the previous year.(v) The non-elderly population having no insurance benefits has risen from 15.9% in 1994 to 17.9% in 2006. (vi) Undocumented aliens now account for over 12 million U.S. residents. These patterns, however, are not new and low-income populations have long had to navigate the social systems that have been put in place to offer services. Services for health care, housing, employment and financial benefits have been experiencing cut-backs during the same time period in which need has been increasing. In effect, being able to take advantage of social services has continued to become more competitive, with demand continuing to outstrip supply. The task of finding, applying for and receiving social services successfully takes, in and of itself, a remarkable amount of tenacity, creativity and skill, and not a small amount of outside help. The fact is, however, that many low-income people have been inadvertently trained in negotiating the bureaucracies of social service agencies.
These developed skills may pale, however, when compared to the imagination and ingenuity used to develop extra-legal or informal ways of availing oneself of resources. Just as in tapping into the local power grid to gain electricity for under Mary’s overpass, tapping informally into the social power structures in order to satisfy unmet need takes a great deal of effort and skill. Predictably, the skills used in this process are met with less than enthusiasm by the dominant and privileged culture, as many are even considered criminal.
Micro-economies, like those that are being promoted internationally, have developed unintentionally in U.S. urban areas. Many of these include illegal activity, but are prompted by efforts to survive. A report in the Atlanta Business Chronicle of June 18, 2004, discussed surprising data that should have been far from surprising. There is a clear and distinct relationship between FBI crime statistics and a city’s level of poverty and unemployment. (vii) Crime – theft, drug trafficking, violence and gang activity – are extra-legal or illegal micro-economic efforts many times undertaken as a solution to poverty. Even benefit fraud has been linked primarily to socio-economic hardship.(viii) Outside of the shelters, soup kitchens and other usual avenues for the homeless to find relief, squatting in abandoned housing and commercial buildings has become more common, as has more creative ways of having multiple families or individuals reside in rented facilities.
Many, if not most, of these activities are illegal but, along with a high level of desperation, they none-the-less take effort, tenacity, imagination and skill. These qualities are many times driven by the urge to survive. While certainly not condoned as legitimate or admirable, these activities do take abilities, skills and cultural proficiency that could otherwise be used constructively. These are not the efforts of helpless people, but rather of people who have learnt and adapted to changing circumstances in creative and ingenious ways – ways that are, admittedly, not socially unacceptable. They are also enabled by cultural familiarity and competencies that could be useful in helping to solve social problems, rather than simply temporarily alleviating symptoms.
Just such a creative use of cultural competency exists in Mansfield, Ohio:
CHAP started on Bowman Street in Mansfield, where the rate of low birth weight was found to be greater than 23%. Babies born low birth weight are 50% more likely to need special education, are at increased risk for asthma, diabetes, cerebral palsy and have an average cost of more than $40,000 in excess medical expense in the first year of life alone. Medical care can have a substantial impact reducing this unethical disparity. Unfortunately our nations poor, though eligible for Medicaid, often never show up to receive basic care. Economically disadvantaged and culturally isolated people face barriers of transportation, culture, and priorities of finding safe housing and food. CHAP identifies hires and trains Community Health Workers (CHWs) from and part of the community to reach out and identify those most at risk – helping them overcome barriers and ensuring that each mother receives basic prenatal care and supportive services. CHWs are supervised by nurses and doctors as an integral part of the health care system. Low birth weigh is now less than 5% for enrolled clients.(ix)
The CHWs have generally been on welfare roles, and many have been involved in various criminal activities that include prostitution, drug use and trafficking, and gang involvement. The success of this program, modeled after one that has been in place with the indigenous populations of Alaska for more than 35 years, has been largely due to the empowerment of otherwise criminal or anti-social individuals by retraining and redirecting their efforts in communities in which they are known and have a great deal of familiarity. Their knowledge and skills, however it may have been used in socially unacceptable ways prior to their involvement with CHAP, are now critically important to the survival of low-income children.
The cultural competency of many low-income people can be utilized effectively in finding solutions for many of the difficulties of low-income people. They are more familiar with the negative circumstances and community assets that abound in their communities – especially those that exacerbate survival efforts. They are familiar with the most common breakdowns or roadblocks to the efficient delivery of services by social agencies.
To be continued at some point in time.
(i) Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, Statistics and Studies: Homeless but not Helpless, AGRM website, http://www.agrm.org/statistics/homerpt1.html, accessed 1/8/08.
(ii) Figures extrapolated from Census Bureau tables show that the average U.S. family income, when adjusted for inflation, has dropped by 8.8% from 2000 to 2004; people in the U.S. living in poverty have increased 40% during the same period; that the only consistent increase in earned income in the U.S. has accrued to the top 15% of the population. It is very likely that the most common individual investors benefiting from globalization come from the same portion of the population that has experienced growth in income. Data available at U.S. Census Bureau, American FactFinder website, <http://factfinder.census.gov/home/saff/ main.html?_lang=en>, accessed 11/15/2005.
(iii) Peter Coy, “Another Look at Those Job Numbers”, BusinessWeek online, July 26, 2004, <http://www.businessweek.com/ magazine/content/04_30/b3893044_mz011.htm?chan=ca>, accessed 12/06/05.
(iv) Kimberly Blandon, “Losing ground – High-paying jobs shrink, lower-wage ones grow in state”, originally printed Sept 8, 2004 in the Boston Globe. Available online at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, <www.massbudget.org/article. php?id=258>, accessed 12/11/05.
(v) National Coalition for the Homeless, How many people Experience Homelessness, August 2007, http://www.nationalhomeless.org/publications/facts/How_Many.pdf, accessed 1/8/08.
(vii) Sarah Rubenstein, “Atlanta gets a bad rap for crime rate, criminology study shows”, Georgia State University Criminal Justice webpage, http://www.cjgsu.net/initiatives/abc-06-2004.htm, accessed 1/6/08.