Several years ago the local paper ran an article about a young man who hopped a train from Raleigh to Charleston with $25 in his pocket. Within six months, he had saved $2500 and had a furnished apartment. He was applauded for his bold undertaking and for his adventure which proved to be successful for him.
With a cursory reading, the young man’s story reinforces the belief that many in our community have: if a person would just apply himself, get a job, and stick to a plan, then life will turn out okay. Of course, many of us need to believe that. We must know that when we stay in school, apply ourselves at work…whether we enjoy it or not…when we play by the rules, then our lives will be everything we wanted. To believe otherwise is simply too scary.
Through the years of working in the area of poverty, I have heard: “They just need to get a job!” “Nobody helped me. Why should I help anyone else?” “If I can do it, then anyone can.” The adventurous young man’s story is delightful and inspiring to those folks who operate with those beliefs.
The real story is not that this recent college graduate made it. After all, he had a college education, he was white, good looking, and understood middle class ways of thinking and acting. He did not come from poverty where the rules of middle class are unknown. As far as the story went, his family was stable, he learned to speak in formal, educated English, and no one in his immediate family was an addict or mentally unstable. He could interact with employers because he intuitively understood their language, their rules, and their values. Charleston had an adequate public transportation system. He had no medical emergency. Of course, he was able to succeed.
The real story is that we believe that his story is true for anyone in our country. After all, we are a bootstrap nation. We believe that we create our own destinies. We are masters of our fate. We can be whoever and whatever we choose to be.
Tell that to someone who grew up in a family where violence was a usual occurrence. Every night a child’s sleep was disturbed by screaming and the noises of hitting and throwing things. Every day that same child could not concentrate in school because of sleep deprivation and so fell further and further behind. Tell that to someone who had an undiagnosed learning disability, dropped out of school, and was limited to working three part-time jobs in order to care for the family. Tell that to someone who worked for years in the same position only to discover she was no longer employable when the plant closed. Tell that to someone whose employer could not afford to provide health care and the heart attack meant loss of everything material. Tell that to the young person of color who is suspect because his name sounds “foreign.”
Many of us want to blame people who live in poverty for creating their situation. It protects our own sense of security. Until we realize that we have been enriched by situations, experiences, and systems of privilege that are not of our own making, we will continue to see with limited vision and understanding the depths of problems and the heights of barriers for certain ones of our neighbors.