The Culture of Generational Poverty > Chapter 4 - Life in the Neighborhood

Chapter 4: Life in the Neighborhood

Life in the Neighborhood

“Every man is surrounded by a neighborhood of voluntary spies.”   Jane Austin

On the rather rare occasion that an impoverished family does escape to the middle class, the others who are left behind will likely not offer hardy congratulations to the newly middle class. “You’ll forget where you came from and become one of THEM,” they warn. “Oh no, we will have a house warming party and invite you up to visit us all the time,” the departing family will assure their neighbors and friends.

On the day of the house warming party the quiet middle class neighborhood where the formerly poor family has moved may get quite a shock. As cars and trucks begin pulling up to celebrate with the new home owners, their presence will be noticed, if not for the music blaring from their car radios, then for the puddle of oil leaking from each of them onto the surface of the street. The half-barrel BBQ grill will be unloaded and stereo speakers will be placed on the front the porch. Within moments the grill will be erected up in the front yard and set ablaze, and someone will break out the libations.

Curtains will sway and blinds will bend as the neighbors spy to see what in heaven’s name is going on at the new neighbor’s house, and they won’t like what they see. There is way too much skin showing at that gathering and those cigarettes smell funny. The new neighbor is about to learn that the police respond much more quickly to calls sent from a middle class neighbor than the one where they used to live. If the newly middle class family wants to stay in the neighborhood they will think twice before they hold another picnic.

The Environment of Poverty

Although the terminology, accents, language, slang, and cooking fragrances might vary from one impoverished neighborhood to another due the race or ethnicity of those who occupy it, the living conditions are very similar. People learn their life lessons through humiliation, retaliation and hard knocks. Instead of supporting one another with compliments and kindness, they challenge one another with insults and dares to build strength of character. They build themselves up by putting others down instead of striving to come up to the level of success that they envy. It is the harsh reality of the neighborhood, and no one who dwells there escapes it.

Even babies become fodder for insult. “Where did you get that monkey you’ve got wrapped up in a blanket?” a new mother might be asked. “Yeah, we almost sent him back when we saw he looks like you,” the mother might reply. Later, when the mother becomes frustrated by the baby’s unrelenting crying she might be heard to say, “Just shut-up, you little monkey-looking moron! You get on my last nerve even when you’re asleep!” Those from the middle class might judge her as cruel. After all, the child will lack appropriate levels of self-esteem if he must tolerate ongoing criticism and taunting from his own family members. The mother, however, is attempting to make the child strong enough to hold his own in the face of societal discrimination and neighborhood bullies. Such thinking, of course, perpetuates the cycle of generational poverty. It also reinforces the cycle of internalized oppression.

Compliments are generally regarded with suspicion. “Why are you trying to butter me up? What have I got that you want?” is not an uncommon response to praise. Those who fall for compliments are often being set up to be somehow ripped off, so they become proficient at seeing it coming. Tough times call for tough measures, and for people who grow up in generational poverty, the times are always tough.

There is an old joke that is not very funny when you view it from the long term ramifications it has for the child...

A pediatric nurse was mortified when the small boy she was caring for told her to remove the milk from his meal tray. “I don’t want this damn milk,” he proclaimed. When his mother came to visit later in the day, the nurse reported the little boy’s remark to her expecting that she would discipline the potty-mouthed child.

Well, to hell with him if he doesn’t want his damned milk!” the mother replied.

Common Tenets and Norms of Generational Poverty Culture

Not all of the norms listed are present in every generationally impoverished neighborhood, but it is good to be able to spot them when they present themselves to the middle class, and to know what inferences lie behind what is being observed.
  • Background noise—The TV is always on, no matter the circumstance. In impoverished neighborhoods the walls are thin. You can either listen to your own noise, or that of your neighbors. Also, if you turn your TV off when you leave your home, intruders will know the house is empty. The television is on regardless of whether the family is away, asleep, or conversing on the telephone.
  • Importance of personality—The ability to entertain, tell stories and have a sense of humor is highly valued. Being the life of the party is one sure way to get invited to future social gatherings. There is food at these gatherings and if you are invited your family gets to eat.
  • Significance of entertainment—Respite from survival is important. The human mind typically tries to free itself from a state of constant need. Fantasy and fun are thought necessary to prevent insanity.
  • Importance of relationships—One often has favorites and has only people to rely on. The middle class believes that parents should love all of their children to the same degree. In poverty class this is not a strongly held value. The child who has the most potential to be an income producer is often told s/he is more cherished than the others.
  • Matriarchal structure—The mother has the most powerful position in the society if she functions as a caregiver. Leaving your family to go off to work is not considered the best way to provide for your family if you are a woman. Mothers who take their children with them when they work are thought to be better mothers than those who would be willing to leave their children with strangers who provide daycare. Once at work, the children are often called upon to share in the labor. This is thought to teach the children a work ethic.
  • Oral language tradition—Slang or casual register is used for everything. The communication in the neighborhood is filled with emotion and color. Slang, swearing, and casual register is used for emphasis, and to demonstrate the commonly understood language that binds them as a community.
  • Survival orientation—There is little room for the abstract, so most of what is communicated is fairly concrete. Discussions center on people and relationships. A job is about making enough money to survive, not about a career.
  • Identity is tied to the lover/fighter role in men—The key issue for males is to be a man. The rules are rigid and a man is expected to work hard physically, and be a skilled lover and a fierce fighter.
  • Identity is tied to rescuer/martyr role for women—A good woman is expected to take care of and rescue her man and her children as needed. The more obstacles a woman has to overcome to care for her family, the more respect she wins from the other women in the community.
  • Importance of non-verbal communication—Touch is used to communicate, as is space, gestures, facial expression, and other non-verbal forms of communication. There is no such thing as a “personal zone” in poverty culture, and people stand more closely to one another in public spaces than those who live in the middle class.
  • Ownership of people—People are possessions. There is a great deal of fear and comment about leaving the culture and “getting above your raisings.” Ownership mentality over their children, spouses, and friends is a form of control used to prevent the loss of those they hold dear.
  • Discipline—Punishment is about penance and forgiveness, not change. Getting caught is the mistake, not the behavior that got you in trouble in the first place. An effort is made not to get caught when repeating the behavior in the future.
  • Belief in fate—Destiny and fate are the major tenets of the belief system. Choice is seldom considered. People who live in poverty wait to be “discovered” to find success. They fail because they are victims who were “set up.” The lottery is called “Ghetto Insurance” in poverty culture. One will spend half their paycheck on gambling to hit it big, or on visits to a reader/advisor to have their fortune told. “Go for bust,” is the slogan that is embraced.

  • [QN.No.#10. Which statement is true? Poverty culture...]

  • Polarized thinking—Options are hardly ever examined. Statements such as “I quit” and “I can’t” are common. Difficult things are more frequently abandoned than conquered.
  • Mating dance—The dance is about using the body in a sexual way to attract the opposite sex. Clothing may be revealing as opposed to expensive. Despite welfare reform efforts, the system still pays young women to have children and extends their allotted time on the system. One must have a mate to have a child, and to find one on a limited budget may mean that you have to show some skin.
  • Time—Time only occurs in the present. The future doesn’t exist except as a word. Time is flexible and not measured. “Compass time,” not “clock time” governs the activities in the neighborhood. “Give me a minute,” may actually be a request to delay an activity for several weeks or months.
  • Lack of order/organization—Many of the homes of people in poverty are unkempt and cluttered. Devises such as drawers, shelves and filing cabinets that help to organize things don’t exist. Lots of time is spent looking for lost items.
  • Lives in the moment—Most of what happens is reactive and in the moment. Little planning or goal setting takes place. When your attention is completely focused on how to survive today, and little thought is given to what tomorrow may bring.

Redefining Work, Rest and Play

There is a major misconception in the middle class that contends that those who are unemployed and impoverished do not work. The poor work consistently even if they don’t have a formal job. Often, work isn’t called “work,” but is known as “hustling,” or “rustling.” The poor sell both their skill sets and their muscle in order to get by. Raising poultry for eggs and to eat (even in the city), gardening to grow their own food, and breeding and selling animals to raise a bit of money are common “hustles.” The health food store will pay well for ginseng root and homegrown herbs. The pet store will buy baby ferrets, puppies, kittens, exotic birds, pot-belly pigs, rats, gerbils and guinea pigs that are raised in shacks, house trailers and sheds. Vegetable stands will buy fruits and veggies raised in area gardens.

Shade-tree mechanics fix the cars in the neighborhood and kitchen barbers cut hair. The local nail salon may be located in someone’s bedroom. Home-based restaurants, catering services, and after-hours clubs are easy to locate. Those who have been provided free laundry facilities by their landlord take in laundry and do wash from sun up to sundown, or longer. Not all “underground” business involve criminal activity. These “quasi-legal” businesses only violate the lesser laws that are enforced by the health department, but not by police. Unlicensed establishments abound, and offer an affordable alternative to more legitimate businesses run by the middle class. Poverty culture is a culture of entrepreneurship. The life skills and talents of those in the culture are used to support the families who live in it.

Poverty culture is also a barter culture. If you baby-sit for my children, I will let you use my washer. If you drive me to the grocery, I will cook dinner. Goods and services are traded, thereby meeting needs without spending money. Resources are shared until they are exhausted. If you can’t pay your electric bill and your service has been discontinued, you simply run extension cords to your neighbor’s house and tap into their current. Water hoses are sometimes used to supply water to an entire block, particularly if the landlord pays the water bill.

Poverty culture is a culture of entitlement. Utilities should be free. Community Action agencies are expected to pay the heat bill. HUD is expected to provide free or low-cost housing. It is fine to steal cable by tapping into your neighbor’s service because if everyone was together in the same room watching TV it would be free to everyone watching except the subscriber. What could be the problem with extending the service to 12 individual apartments by drilling through the walls and stringing the cable through to everyone? Now the bill can be divided 12 ways and it isn’t nearly so pricy.

To the poor, those living in the middle class are wealthy. Their “Robin Hood” mentality is just a way of neutralizing unjust discrepancies between those who can afford things and those who can’t.

When people work in the middle class they earn money. Poor people earn rest and play. Rest, sleep, and play are highly valued as compensation for effort. Time to enjoy the fruits of one’s labors is savored. A nap is a necessity, not a luxury, especially if one has hustled long into the night to finish a job. Sleeping late in the morning is flex-time.

Drugs and alcohol are sometimes viewed as a “vacation” if done intensively for days at a time. Intoxication is an economical way to “get away from it all.” Recovery time is built into the vacation period, and one does not return to work until the hangover passes.

A poem written by a social services worker who visits the “hardcore unemployed” in the Appalachian area of Ohio wrote the following poem after one particularly sad home visit. Wil Mayne uses his skill as a poet to “detoxify” after a long day of visiting the helpless and the hopeless that are deeply entrenched in generational poverty. What Wil sees is simply too demoralizing to carry home with him each evening.

[QN.No.#11. Which statement is true? The unemployed who live in poverty generally...]

Fat Lady Smokin’ Pot

Cockatiels singing their songs

Finches singing along

Rotten toothed boyfriend walks in

She makes her livin’ babysittin’

Metropolitan Housing Authority low rent bliss

Where the hell else can you live like this?

Food stamps to satisfy her munchy need

Wait a minute while I toke on my weed

I’m gonna exhaust my welfare cash

Yeah, I know, I’m just ordinary white trash

I ain’t got no goals other than to maintain

This temporary high while outside it rains

But I am dry, so I really don’t care

This is my life although I ain’t goin’ nowhere

I know what tomorrow will bring

More of the “same ole, same ole” thing

Wil Mayne


The Real Deal

Sherry, a middle class woman who dedicates her spare time to charitable causes, was driving several poverty class men to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. “Stop please Ma’am,” one man requested upon seeing his friend walking along the sidewalk, “I want to say hello to my buddy.”

Sherry couldn’t help but notice that the man was staggering; obviously his gait was impaired by substance abuse. “Why don’t you invite your friend to come along with us?” Sherry suggested, sure that the man could benefit from a twelve-step program.

Upon receiving the invitation the stranger staggered towards the car. “Ma’am, did you take a vacation this year?” he inquired. “Why yes,” Sherry replied. “My family went to Florida for a week.”

“How much did the trip cost you?” the man persisted. Taken aback, Sherry stammered, “Uh, about $1500.”

“I couldn’t raise the money to make the trip myself this year,” the man explained, “But I did manage to come up with ten bucks for this vial of crack. I can get away for about three days for my investment. I can’t go to a meeting today because I am on vacation.”

I Need What You’ve Got: Share or Suffer

The working poor who have been helped by welfare reform often become victims in the neighborhoods where they live. If they get a minimum wage paycheck on the second or third week of the month when cash is almost non-existent in the neighborhood, they begin to look like The Bank of America to their neighbors. “Can you spare me, lend me, give me...?” confronts them on payday. This puts those who have legitimate jobs in a precarious position. If they relent to the requests, they will lack the money to pay their own bills. If they fail to give up the money, they stand a good chance of being robbed of it. Whether the cash is tucked under a bra strap, or hidden between mattresses, it won’t be there for long.

The “selfish” poor risk being cut out of the barter loop that they depend on to stretch their meager income. If the wage earner fails to spread the wealth around they may find that no one is willing to provide free baby-sitting or laundry services. Their ride to work, or to the grocery is suddenly unavailable. The next time they plead for help because of an incident of domestic violence, no one will hear their cries.

Race, Ethnicity and Poverty: Are they Connected?

Those who define you, control you. Historically, wealthy white men have controlled mainstream culture by defining the norms and distributing the resources in such a way that their values systems are satisfied and their needs are met. The women’s liberation movement of the 1970’s spoke to this issue, and was ultimately designed to free women from the domination of the wealthy men who set the rules, and the oppression of the middle class men who enforced them.

It appeared that nonviolent protest worked well to gain middle class women more power in society, but it didn’t work nearly as well for African-Americans. Today’s protests being staged by Hispanics around the immigration issue is not incurring much societal sympathy for their cause either. Some populations in America are easier to disempower than others, and minority populations are the easiest of all.

Women have historically made up more than 52% of the American population, but minorities are thusly named because their numbers are smaller than those of others in the dominant culture. Power is not easily wrestled from those who have it, but strength in numbers is one means of overpowering the status quo. Only 12.6% of America’s inhabitants live below the poverty line, yet 20-25% of African-Americans, American Indians, and Hispanics live in poverty. Immigrants fair only a little better, at 16%.

When a fifth to a quarter of a population is impoverished the norms of poverty culture tend to commingle with native racial and ethnic norms. Many of those who have come to the U.S. have done so to escape the lack of opportunity in their native land, and come into the country with poverty culture blended into their family traditions and ways of thinking. The norms of poverty culture are designed to block the success of the people who live in it. Both inside and outside of poverty culture, pressure exists to keep the poor down. It is likely not a coincidence that people of color and non-English speaking citizens are swept along in this tide of oppression.

Despite these conditions, people who live in poverty culture have pride. When they speak about their family they qualify their impoverished condition with “buts” that reflect their attention to mainstream values;

[QN.No.#12. Which statement is false? Poverty impacts....]

“We may be poor, BUT we are...”
  • Clean
  • Happy
  • Hard working
  • Fun to be around
  • Helpful to others less fortunate than ourselves
  • Friendly

Most every impoverished family has a way of defining themselves that expresses a value that is common to the mainstream American experience.

During the Great Depression, the American middle class disappeared into poverty, but they did not, in large numbers become part of the generational poverty class. They used their middle class values, traditions, norms, and sensibilities to pull themselves back to their pre-war economic status. The generationally impoverished have little of such programming to rely on.

Live Poor, Die Poor

Death is expensive in today’s society, and so is life insurance. Those in poverty seldom have the extra money to buy insurance of any sort, and life insurance is a very low priority purchase. Since most don’t have jobs with benefits, when death occurs there are no funds available to bury the dead. The welfare system does not cover funeral costs, and social security only pays about $250 for a funeral. The average funeral is priced $7,000-$10,000 for a “no frills” send-off.

Some communities have a small funeral fund to assist members of their community in paying for funerals, but they limit the number of people they can serve each year to less than a dozen. In short, if you live in poverty, money must be raised immediately after you die to bury you.

Friends and family of the recently departed set to work putting together cash for the funeral expenses immediately upon experiencing the loss. Gambling parties are a common way of raising some fast cash. A friend, neighbor, or family member hosts a party. A cover charge is collected at the door, homemade food is sold for a few dollars a dish, and games of chance are played. The winner of each game splits the winnings 50-50 between themselves and the funeral kitty. The party is repeated night after night until the needed funds are collected.

If the departed was a member of a place of worship or an organization such as the VFW, donations will be taken, or an event held to assist the family with burial expenses.

Two other options also exist for disposing of the remains. The family can donate the body to science. A medical school will claim the body and use the cadaver as a teaching aid for students. This is an option of last resort. In poverty, often all a person actually owns is his/her body, and the thought of having medical students experiment with it appears to be the final insult. A second option is cremation. It costs less, only about $1000-$1500, but this process sometimes runs counter to the religious or ethnic beliefs of the family.

Recently, some attention has been paid to a trend towards “suicide by cop.” Departing this life in a blaze of glory will almost assure that money will be easily raised to bury the body. Getting ones self shot by the police will bring publicity, sympathy, and cash for the family from others in the community who feel sorry for the family because of their high profile loss.

A 1983 article which appeared in Time Magazine[i] describes how The Big Apple handles burial of the indigent who have no family or friends to raise money for a funeral. It describes “Potter’s Field” in the city.

The city's department of corrections has charge of Hart Island, and inmates bury the dead. In most instances, it is a case of the poor burying the poor, and over the course of decades there have been many former gravediggers who were laid to rest in the very soil they had once turned. And, as is always the way here, they did not go down into the earth alone, for burial in this field is like life in New York City: crowded. One goes to the grave in a gang, ten across, three deep, 148 bodies to the plot.

The cemetery occupies but 45 acres, and yet there is no risk of exceeding capacity. "I am told at some point you can use the same space twice," says Assistant Corrections Commissioner Edward Hershey. "You know, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and all that." A department pamphlet says that point is reached after a plot has been let alone 25 years, which is "sufficient time for the complete decay of the original remains."

In cities and towns across the country the homeless, the poor, and those who have lived their lives behind bars are laid to rest much like they lived, alone, and with nothing, not even a grave of their own.
[i] Jaynes, Gregory (1983) In New York: Last Stop for the Poor. Retrieved July 16, 2007 from the Time Magazine (2007) website at,9171,949757-2,00.html

Question No.10. Which statement is true? Poverty culture...

a. Provides an environment of privacy and safety.
b. Is a place where positive reinforcement is seldom heard.
c. Is based on a patriarchal structure.
d. Filled with abstract ideas and future plans.

Question No.11. Which statement is true? The unemployed who live in poverty generally...

a. Don't work at all.
b. Refuse to barter to get their needs met.
c. Never give up hope of finding a job in mainstream America.
d. Work in a number of "quasi-legal" jobs to support themselves and their families.

Question No.12. Which statement is false? Poverty impacts....

a. Women and children in greater numbers than men.
b. Minorities in greater numbers than native born white people.
c. Poor families by leaving them with nothing to feel proud about.
d. The generationally impoverished more so than the poor who were acculturated in the middle class.

The Culture of Generational Poverty > Chapter 4 - Life in the Neighborhood
Page Last Modified On: April 28, 2015, 08:44 PM