The Culture of Generational Poverty > Chapter 3 - Past, Present and Future Perspectives

Chapter 3: Past, Present and Future Perspective

Double Jeopardy: Poor and At-Risk

In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future.   Alex Haley

The only thing the generationally impoverished have ever known is deprivation. They have lived from one day to the next wondering how they will get by. If ever economic security existed in their family history, it was so far back that they were not exposed to it. Some U.S. families are now on their seventh generation of poverty reaching back to before the advent of social welfare programs. They have inherited a legacy of hopelessness, a life where today doesn’t look much different than yesterday, and tomorrow is destined to be a continuation of the same.

Differences Between Class Perspectives

The poor, the middle class and the wealthy view their past, their present, and their future in very different ways. The illustration in Figure 2 will provide a graphic illustration of these perspectives with relationship to those who live at the top, middle and bottom of the economic spectrum.

Those at the top, middle, and bottom do get a chance to encounter one another from time to time. Predominately, the upper middle class meet the wealth class in their place of worship, high-end department stores and boutiques, at social gatherings, and at private clubs. The middle class encounters people from poverty class in their place of worship, in shopping malls, movie theaters, at community events, and at public recreation facilities such as public parks and pools. Additionally, all three classes encounter one another in the course of their workday.

Butlers, gardeners, nannies, domestic staff, drivers, security guards, and delivery personnel often hail from poverty class, and are hired by the wealthy to oversee the more mundane duties of daily living. The middle class encounters people of poverty class when they order a meal at a fast food restaurant, hire a home health aide, purchase items from a Big Box store, or pick up their dry cleaning thanks to the fact that the working poor fill the front line positions in these establishments and service areas. When the wealthy require police protection, healthcare services, education for their children, require clerical assistance, and make purchases from high end stores they again encounter those from the middle class who provide professional services needed by the rich.

The fact that the classes brush against one another in the course of daily living does little to diminish the fact that they live in separate worlds, sometimes barely noticing one another as they interface. Seldom are close relationships forged that would serve to influence the thinking of those of other classes.

The division becomes even more apparent when you notice the size of the past, now, and future circles at the bottom of the illustration. As mentioned earlier, the poor think only about the present. Their future holds little promise, and their past is not usually filled with happy memories, so they take life as it comes with little focus on future planning. They seldom put back anything to save for tomorrow and use up whatever resources they come by almost immediately after receiving them, because life is so uncertain that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed to come.

The middle class are constantly reminded to remember where they came from, and are encouraged to preserve the traditions of the past that got them where they are today. Their past is as important to their future as is their present, so they budget, put away a bit of savings, maintain their possessions, organize their affairs, and preserve long term relationships that add stability to their lives.

Where the poor are survival oriented, the middle class is responsibilities oriented and attend to their present so they can build on it in the future. Retirement planning, for example, is valued primarily by the middle class who aim to live out their lives free of government dependence, with some left over to pass along to their offspring. Since most in the middle class live primarily from paycheck to paycheck, a fear of falling into poverty is a strong motivator to act responsibly now in an attempt to hang on to all they have and hold dear.

The wealthy are often too busy enjoying today to worry about what happened in their family’s history. An embarrassment of riches and powerful connections keeps them from having to worry about falling out of their social class, so it matters little where the wealth came from in the first place. The wealthy are forward thinking individuals who are sometimes more rights oriented than responsibilities oriented. They are looking out for their future rights, and the rights of their children and grandchildren as they look for ways to extend their good fortune beyond this lifetime. They plan strategically for the future by funding endowments that will bear their name as living legacies of themselves in the world of art, commerce and culture.

It is with relative ease that those in one class cast aspersions on those in other classes due to their differing past, present and future perspectives, each judging their way of thinking to be superior to the others. The poor can’t figure out why the middle class would spend their whole lives working just to die and pass their hard earned possessions onto someone else. Why they barely have time to enjoy today because they fear what will happen tomorrow! The middle class lacks an understanding of why the wealthy spoil their children instead of cultivating an earning mentality as they have done with their own children, and why they spend so irresponsibly, much like the poor, who seem to run through resources as if tomorrow will never come.

Are the Classes Climbing Different Ladders?

The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook[i] contains an interesting model, The Ladder of Inference that explains the ways in which culture, beliefs, and thinking interact to produce action.

Figure 3: The Ladder of Inference

In any given environment, there is more to observe than the human mind can capture. Imagine a video camera recording a scene, and notice how much more the camera might see compared a human in the same environment. Each of us selects which environmental data we will focus on, and what we will attend to. Once our mind has selected the data we find relevant, we will begin to add meaning to that data based on our personal experience and acculturation. Based on the meaning we perceive, we make assumptions, which lead us to draw conclusions about the world. Our conclusions cause us to adopt beliefs about the world. The actions we take are based on our beliefs.

[QN.No.#8. The model entitled The Ladder of Inference shows that...]

Let’s look at how the Ladder of Inference might play out if a person from wealth class, middle class, and poverty class were all present in the same circumstance. Each of the three people arrives at a hospital to visit an elderly loved one. Upon entering the loved one’s room, they notice that the person they are visiting has a bruise on their arm. The person from wealth class might notice the bruise and decide that someone has injured their loved one. They assume that the injury has been caused by the carelessness of the nursing staff. Drawing the conclusion that the staff is inept, they may adopt the belief that their loved one isn’t safe in the facility and take the action of moving the person to another facility.

A person from the middle class might see the bruise and decide that their loved one has had an accident. They decide that the injury occurred due to a fall or a bump. They assume that the nursing staff is competent, but stretched to thin to observe the patient closely, and that their loved one is growing too weak to move about on their own, and draw the conclusion that the loved one needs assistance to ambulate. They adopt the belief that it is time to procure a walker for their loved one and ask the staff to order a walker for the patient.

A person from poverty class might see the bruise and decide that their loved one was assaulted by his/her roommate. They assume the injury occurred while the roommate was attempting to steal their loved one’s watch. They draw the conclusion that their loved one is being victimized by his/her roommate, and adopt the belief that the loved one is unsafe with the current roommate. They insist upon talking to the head nurse to expedite the transfer of their loved one to a room on a different floor of the facility.

The ladders of these three people are all drawn from different paradigms. Paradigms develop due the reflexive loop. After being acculturated to make assumptions and draw conclusions by habitually viewing matters through their programmed cultural lenses, those steps are skipped in future analysis of a situation. They respond reflexively in much the same manner to every future situation that is similar to what they have experienced in the past. Thusly, people from different social classes learn to view the world in very different ways.

Does the Middle Class Exploit and Oppress the Poor?

One might argue that the rich oppress the middle class by levying taxes that include loopholes for the wealthy, and by introducing them to schemes where the rich person makes far more money than the middle class middle-man. Stories abound about people who have won the lottery only to see their money dissipate rapidly as those in wealth class sell them overpriced objects, or set them up with faulty investments. It appears that the rich like to protect the exclusivity of their class, and are skilled at doing so.

Does this urge to protect entrance into one’s own class extend to the middle class as well? Is the middle class cheering for the underdog, and embracing those who rise out of poverty? Some do and some don’t. Similarly, there are some folks living in wealth class who are more than willing to give a middle class person a leg up when they see potential in the individual. A recent boom in new millionaires in America speaks to that fact. Not all “self-made” millionaires became so without backing from those who were already wealthy.

While it is dangerous to make sweeping assumptions about people in any class, it is noteworthy to examine the ways in which the middle class exploit the poor, as well as how the poor exploit one another.

Middle class business men and women have long known how to capitalize on the spending habits of the poor. It is no secret that money arrives in impoverished neighborhoods on the first of each month. As a matter of fact, in some poor neighborhoods the first of every month is known as “Mother’s Day,” because it is the day that mother can buy the things she has wanted and needed over the past four weeks.

It is no coincidence that big sales spring up in and near impoverished neighborhoods on the first week of each month. Rental stores offer “easy weekly payments” on items such as computers, appliances, furniture, big screen televisions, and stereo equipment the first week of each month. The “buy here—pay here” car lots put their cars on sale at “deep discounts.” Bingo parlors offer a deal on bingo cards, five for the price of four. Pawn shops offer two items for the price of one. Vendors display their wares on street corners and sell carpet by the roll, gold by the inch, and Velvet Elvis paintings.

Neighborhood taverns extend the length of happy hour, and the local groceries mark up the price of snack foods, cigarettes, and liquor to capitalize on the fact that the poor have money to spend. Casinos offer discounts on food and drinks. Cut rate telephone companies will restore phone service with a minimal down payment, and throw-away cell phones are on sale everywhere. Door to door salesmen hustle for fast sales on vacuum cleaners, insurance policies, burial plots, laundry soap, and cosmetics.

Between the third and fifth of each month the money is gone, and things go back to normal for the next three more weeks. Where does the money come from to make these non-essential purchases? Social security and Aid to Dependent Children checks fall quietly into the mailboxes of impoverished families. The working poor get their first paycheck of the month. Retirement checks come to others who have worked in the past, but are now in their golden years.

Between January and April each year the IRS issues “Earned Income Credit” checks that range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars in value. During this period the check cashing companies offer instant refunds and will even do a person’s taxes for free if they sign up to pay almost 30% interest on the advance. The “buy here—pay here” car lots will also fill out one’s tax forms and take the entire refund as a down payment on a used car that is valued at two to three times its’ Blue Book value. The interest rate for these cars runs about 28%.

Unscrupulous real estate investors offer lease-purchase options at 15% interest and those who flip homes throw a little paint on a run down property and sell it to unsuspecting buyers for twice its value. Mortgage lenders offer loans for 125% of a home’s value to give mortgage holders a little spending money. The result is that the poor find themselves “upside down” on home and car loans, meaning that they owe more than the house or car is worth. Bad credit? No credit? No problem! Whether or not you have the ability to pay, there is someone out there who is willing to take their chances on you.

If middle class vendors are unsuccessful in sucking all of the cash out of impoverished homes, other poor folks are more than willing to lend a hand. Neighborhood drug dealers offer outstanding buys on marijuana, cocaine, heroin, meth amphetamine, crack, and club drugs. Observably, the men return to the neighborhood bearing gifts of diapers, milk, and jewelry to lure the woman who live there all month long into giving up their government checks. The area pimps even put their stable on sale so that buying a woman’s company is a more affordable luxury. Illegal weapons can be purchased for half their normal price. After hours clubs reduce their cover charge and offer a free drink to lure in customers that will gamble away the remainder of their checks.

Even the neighborhood churches sometimes get in on the act, holding ice cream socials, fish fries, carnivals, and tent revivals where the plate is passed not once, but several times during the event. Festivals are held at area parks on the first weekend of the summer months in impoverished areas of the community. Drag races spring up at area speedways, and demolition derbies and tractor pulls are held at the local fairgrounds. Area bowling alleys, skating rinks, and game rooms offer incentives to boost attendance. Entertainment opportunities abound to brighten an otherwise dark existence. Sometimes the allure of these events is simply too tempting to resist.

The Hidden Rules of the Middle Class

You might inquire, “What hidden rules could possibly exist in the middle class?” Often referred to as “common sense,” these rules reside in the reflexive loop of most middle class people, and have become mindless common practices in mainstream America. The middle class might selectively break these rules, but they definitely know they are breaking a rule when they do so.

Not knowing the hidden rules of the middle class can cause a person living in poverty culture to lose a job, ruin a friendship, or even get arrested in mainstream. Not all of these rules are unknown to all people who live in generational poverty, but generally these values, activities, and sensibilities might not be common knowledge as those in the middle class assume that it is. Here is a sampling of the hidden rules:

[QN.No.#9. Which statement is true? The hidden rules of the middle class are...]
  • Budget—Save some for later, whether it is a piece of cake, or a few dollars from your paycheck. You might need it worse later than you need it now. Have a fund to cover future emergencies.
  • Analyze your risks—Decide what might go wrong when you make a decision, then modify your approach to mitigate as much of the risk as possible.
  • Company Manners—Put on your best face when you are in the presence of someone you wish to impress. Speak politely, don’t swear, and use table manners when you eat.
  • Table manners—These include putting a napkin in your lap, keeping your elbows off the table, taking small bites, and not talking with your mouth full.
  • Be honest, but not brutally so—Consider the feelings of others when you speak.
  • Privacy is protected—Keep personal things to yourself in public. Don’t ever make a scene, and don’t talk loudly in quiet places.
  • Never point at anyone—It is impolite. And, don’t stare at people who look different or odd to you.
  • Pay your bills before you play—It is irresponsible to entertain yourself with money needed to pay the bills. Pay the bills first, then indulge yourself with what is left. Pay your bills on time. Never wait for a second notice.
  • Get a checking account—Never, ever get a payday loan, and don’t use a check cashing store to cash your paycheck. They keep 10% of your money.
  • Keep your clothes and your body clean—Don’t put dirty clothes on after you shower, only put deodorant on only after you have cleaned your under arms with soap and water, wash your hair before it looks dirty, and be sure your clothing is not stained or ill-fitting.
  • Don’t rent your furniture, electronics and appliances—Go to a second hand store, a yard sale, or an auction if you must, but buy these things, don’t rent them.
  • Don’t waste anything—It doesn’t matter whether you have to pay for it yourself or not, don’t waste it.
  • Have boundaries—Don’t ask strangers personal questions, and don’t be too self-revealing too early in a new friendship or relationship. Don’t stand too close to strangers when speaking to them. It makes them uncomfortable.
  • Don’t take it unless it’s offered—Do not help yourself to things that belong to others even if you think they don’t want them anymore. Always ask before you take something.
  • Don’t throw a party in your front yard—Keep your music at a reasonable volume, and take pains to make sure that your social gatherings do not disturb the neighbors.
There certainly are a lot of “don’ts” in the middle class, aren’t there? Perhaps it even looks to the poor like the middle class is “putting on airs” when they automatically abide by these rules. The poor have no idea that the middle class doesn’t know any other way to do things. Most of these rules were taught to them as children, and are reinforced by societal expectations. Unfortunately, not knowing these rules can cost the generationally impoverished dearly.

The Real Deal

Kari had been working the counter at a popular fast food restaurant for three weeks. During the lunch rush one Tuesday, Kari’s crew leader noticed that she was squirming uncomfortably behind the counter. She approached Kari and whispered discretely in her ear, “I will cover your register if you need to leave to go to the restroom.”

Kari replied in strong, clear tones, “I don’t have to pee, I have a yeast infection and it itches!” Appalled, the supervisor took Kari by the arm and led her to the back of the restaurant while the customers fled to their cars, their appetites dulled by Kari’s revelation.

Ten minutes later Kari was seen leaving the restaurant by the back door, carrying her possessions and crying. She had been fired for violating the rules of the middle class, and in all likelihood she left the restaurant that day still not understanding what she had done.

[i] Peter M. Senge, Art Kleiner, Charlotte Roberts, Rick Ross, Bryan Smith (1994) The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. Doubleday, New York, NY.

Question No.8. The model entitled The Ladder of Inference shows that...

a. People tend to select the data present in their environment that they wish to attend to.
b. Personal experience and acculturation are used to add meaning to what is happening in a person's environment.
c. If a person draws the same conclusion repeatedly, the conclusion becomes integrated in their belief system.
d. All of the above.

Question No.9. Which statement is true? The hidden rules of the middle class are...

a. Accessible to anyone who wishes to learn them.
b. Shared openly with those outside the middle class.
c. A set of sensibilities needed to attain and sustain a middle class lifestyle.
d. Hidden from children in the middle class until after they reach adulthood.

The Culture of Generational Poverty > Chapter 3 - Past, Present and Future Perspectives
Page Last Modified On: April 28, 2015, 08:42 PM