The Culture of Generational Poverty > Chapter 8 - Overcoming Obstacles to Helping

Chapter 8: Overcoming Obstacles to Helping

Overcoming Obstacles to Helping

“Change the thought that creates the resistance, and there is no more resistance.”   Robert Conklin

Helping the poor isn’t as easy as it sounds. Not all impoverished people want a different life, and of those who do, not everyone wants to do the things that they must do to gain economic security. The right to self-determination is extended to all Americans, and helpers must keep that in mind when making their best efforts to rescue the poor from the shackles of poverty.

As the above quote suggests, in order to reduce resistance to anything, one must change their thinking about that thing. Professional helpers are generally skilled at assisting others to think about their lives in a different way. They are trained to take the person in need of assistance from a “point of view” to a “viewing point” from which they can view themselves and their situation more objectively. Distancing an individual from their current circumstance is the essence of change management.

To reach a “viewing point” one must rise above their fears and notice things about their situation that they can’t see when they are in the midst of their dilemma. This is why it is so vital that professional helpers do their best to be “uplifting” in their interactions with the poor. This doesn’t mean to make light of their situation, but it does indicate that the helper would do his/her best to extend hope to the struggling person.

It is also helpful if everyone is invested in making changes, not just the impoverished person. Employers who hire low wage earners might introduce strategies that correspond to the needs of impoverished employees (i.e. ride sharing programs, discount club memberships, a company store where items are purchased with performance points, short term reward systems, and swift developmental feedback at the moment a performance deficit arises.) Such programs have been shown to reduce absenteeism, employee theft, turnover rates, and discrimination complaints, and increase employee loyalty.

Employers could also offer day work, job shares, family work sites, telecommuting opportunities, work at home projects, and neighborhood business collaboratives as alternatives to full or part time employment. There is much less resistance exhibited to small changes than large ones, and such strategies can provide opportunities for incremental change.

Cons, Hookers, and Thieves, Oh My!

To be blunt, there are some scary people living in poverty today. Wild-eyed drug addicts high on crack or methamphetamine are volatile and unpredictable. Criminals are notorious for their ability to lie convincingly, and may be carrying weapons. Seldom will an impoverished prostitute own up to how she is earning her living when speaking to a helper from a middle class. Helping the poor frequently entails dealing with people who are manipulative at best, and dangerous at worst. In order to make society less dangerous, professional helpers are tasked with making dangerous people less dangerous, and there are a myriad of different kinds of dangerous people inhabiting impoverished neighborhoods.

Each year, attacks against social service and healthcare workers rise in numbers and severity. From shoot-outs in emergency rooms of hospitals, to rapes and assaults against home visitors who do their work in impoverished neighborhoods, crimes against helpers are becoming more frequent. Being a professional helper is not for the faint of heart, nor is it for those whose don’t take the time to calculate their risks. Here are some tips for working with dangerous individuals.

Dangerous Individuals

When you have to respond to a dangerous person, you need to react in a manner that reduces the danger inherent in the situation and adheres to your agency's threat management policies. If your agency does not have a policy that gives specific guidance about the management of dangerous individuals, these guidelines are recommended:

  • Hostility and anger are often reaction to fear. Do whatever possible to lessen the individual’s need to be afraid of you.
  • Maintain an attitude of confidence. A violent person is more likely to attack someone who appears weak, afraid, or easily intimidated.
  • However, do not do or say anything that the interviewee might interpret as aggressive or challenging.
  • Do not raise your voice, argue, lecture, confront, accuse, or give advice. Instead, remain composed and speak in a gentle, soothing manner.
  • Demonstrate empathy for the interviewee’s feelings of frustration and anger. Use both reflecting and paraphrasing skills to ensure that you accurately understand the individual’s thoughts and feelings.
  • If the individual is angry because of a mistake or inappropriate statement you made, admit your error and apologize.
  • Do not move into the individual’s space. Do not touch an angry individual. Try to sit rather than stand, because sitting is a less confrontational posture. Encourage the individual to sit as well; that usually has a calming effect.
  • Position office furniture—and yourself—so that you have easy access to the door or an escape route. Avoid seating the individual between you and the door. Make certain that the individual also has easy access to the door so that he or she doesn’t feel trapped.
  • When you enter a room containing a potentially violent individual, move slowly.
  • Remain on the periphery until you have sized up the situation. Watch the individual’s body language for any signs of potentially violent behavior.
  • When in the home of a potentially violent individual, try to interview the person in the living room. Avoid both the kitchen and bedroom, since weapons are often kept in those rooms. If the person moves quickly to one of those rooms, leave immediately.
  • Never attempt to disarm an individual with a weapon. If the person has a weapon, explain calmly that you intend no harm and back away slowly, or try otherwise to get out of the situation.
  • Never enter a potentially dangerous situation alone or without first informing others of your plans. When making home calls, always leave an itinerary with coworkers, and check in by phone according to a prearranged schedule. Never hesitate to call the police for assistance.
  • Review the case history of potentially violent individuals. Advance knowledge and preparation can help you avoid a dangerous situation—or, at least, better prepare for it.
  • Set up a code at your agency to alert coworkers and supervisors about potential danger in your office. For example, calling a coworker or supervisor and asking for “the green file” could mean “Danger—come fast!” Likewise, a buzzer system could be used to alert coworkers and supervisors that you are in a dangerous situation.
  • Never overestimate your ability to handle a dangerous situation.
  • Never underestimate the paralyzing effect of fear.

We Don’t Want Your Help...

There are many ways to reject the unwanted help of others, but not all of them are blatant, or even conscious for that matter. Some folk think they want help initially, and then decline every opportunity that is extended to them. Others, wanting to be polite, say that they appreciate the helper’s efforts, but then fail to follow-up on the help they have been given. Yet others adamantly refuse help from the start.

No everyone who lives in poverty wants to escape it. Some are rather comfortable where they are, and feel secure in the predictability of their situation. Regardless the reason, help should never be forced upon the poor, or anyone else for that matter. Some people fail to report crimes out of fear of retribution from the criminals. The ill may refuse medical treatment that could restore quality or comfort to their lives. The homeless may prefer to live on the streets rather than to accept a bed at a shelter. Although these may seem like unwise choices, they are choices, nonetheless, and everyone has a right to choose as they see fit.

Allowing the impoverished to reject help doesn’t mean that one should find ways to exempt them from the logical consequences of their decision. Those who are offered a job and refuse it should be cut from the jobs program that helped find them the job. People who fail to keep their children safe and free of neglect should have to relinquish their offspring to the care of relatives or a foster home. Those who choose to use drugs and alcohol should be expelled from treatment centers if they refuse to comply with the program. People who violate their parole should be returned to prison. The poor, as well as those in middle and wealth class, make bad decisions every day, but they are their decisions to make.

When possible, the helper is responsible for explaining the unwanted ramifications and potential side effects of an impoverished person’s decision to reject help, but that is where the helper’s responsibility ends. After that point the helper must follow the rules of their workplace, take legal action when it is mandated, or simply let go, and walk away from a person who has the potential, but not the will to succeed.

Are poor people invested in staying poor? Yes, and no. Yes, there are some who don’t want to do the hard work required to move up in class. They are waiting for the easy money to arrive, and will continue to wait, whether it ever comes or not. And no, the majority of people who live in poverty would do most anything to climb out of the hole their family has found themselves in for generations. There are so many of these willing individuals and families to help, that there just isn’t time to waste on expending a great deal of time and energy on those who are satisfied with their lot in life.

This pronouncement may sound harsh, and it may be just exactly why “the poor will be with us always,” but it is a sad reality that exists, whether we in the middle class are comfortable with it or not. The values systems exhibited by the poor tend to baffle the middle class on a number of fronts, and the rejection of help by those who seem to really need it is one of those mysteries that the middle class may never be able to solve.

Ouch, Another Cultural Collision

It is imperative to remember that when a middle class helper is communicating with a generationally impoverished person or family, they are interacting across cultural lines. Think for a moment how common misunderstandings are when people of different nationalities attempt to communicate. Language differences, behavioral norms, rituals, traditions, values, and differing ways of thinking all create barriers to mutual understanding. So it is also when talking to those whose class is different than your own.

Don’t give up too quickly when trying to resolve misunderstandings and seek common ground until you exhaust all efforts to reach agreement. When cultural collisions occur;

  • Immediately apologize for any role you may have had in the misunderstanding.
  • Say that it was not your intention to insult or upset the person to whom you are speaking.
  • If you need to give the person instructions, begin your instruction with the word “I,” not the word “you.”
  • Detail the benefits to the person to be had from following your instructions.
  • Detail the unwanted consequences to the person if s/he fails to follow your instructions.
  • Ask the person to tell you what s/he plans to do in order to comply with your direction and when they intend to do it.
  • Restate your instructions if the person does not appear to have a good grasp of the instruction or how to follow it.
  • Write down the instructions and the timelines that have been set to accomplish the task that is to be done.
  • Throughout the process be sure to use plain language that can be easily understood.
  • Provide contact information so that the person can contact you with questions or problems they may have when attempting to follow your directions.


Remember never to personalize the rejection of your help or ideas. The person across from you views you as a representative of your organization, not a real individual with feelings. They may even hurl insults at you that are very personal in nature, yet, since they don’t know the real you at all, it is not possible for their comments to be aimed at you as a person. Don’t take the bait, and remain composed when you unwittingly evoke an angry response from someone who has no understanding of how you think or feel.

A phenomenon known as “middle class guilt” sometimes comes into play when working to help the impoverished. On a subconscious level some in the middle class may feel badly because they have more blessings to count than those living in poverty, and will be inclined to let themselves be manipulated because of these feelings. Allowing oneself to be used for the financial gains of another who is unwilling to earn their own way does not help anyone. It simply reinforces the message that those living in the middle class owe something to those in poverty.

Feeling that one is owed can interfere with one’s motivation and ability to do what they can for themselves, and robs them of the pride that comes from earning, learning and accomplishing goals that are meaningful in their own lives.

Money does not solve poverty. Changing the way in which one lives their life does.

Go Forth and Conquer

Daily thousands of Americans transcend class. They get a great job, or win the lottery, or file bankruptcy, or “marry up” or down. They make connections with powerful or helpful others who invest time, or money, or advice in them, and their lives are transformed in an instant. More often though, people who transcend class do so inch by inch, and creep slowly along to a better life, or a worse one, depending on their perspective. Sometimes the climb, or decline is so slow that they don’t even realize that they have moved at all.

Transcending class always comes with a new set of sensibilities, responsibilities, and obligations. It is the job of the professional helper to prepare a person for the transition, and support them as they make the difficult journey from the known to the unknown. One thing is for sure, the transition is always easier when someone else cares whether you make it or not, and helping professionals usually care a great deal. Kudos to you for taking this course, and for making a difference in the lives of those who, without your caring assistance, would be lost.

The Real Deal

Jenny was born in poverty, as was her mother and grandmother. Although she was a bright child, her opportunities were limited, and there was never enough money to send her on school field trips, or even buy her a gift on her birthday. At age 17, Jenny gave birth to a daughter of her own, knowing that the burden of single parenthood would likely cause her to drop out of school to support her child. Before leaving the maternity ward, the labor room nurse who had taken a liking to Jenny came into her room to see her one last time before she and the baby were released from the hospital.

Nurse Abby smiled down at the young woman and her child and remarked, “That baby that you are holding is destined for greatness,” she said. “I can feel it.”

“You can?” responded Jenny in amazement. “Oh yes! How could she fail with such a wonderful mother?” Abby replied.

“I had this baby out-of-wedlock, and I haven’t even graduated high school. How will I ever provide her with the kind of life that it will take to make her become great?” Jenny wondered aloud.

“You will want a better life for her than the one you have had so far,” Abby stated confidently, “And you will stay in school, graduate, find a way to go to college, and get a great job like mine to assure you can provide opportunities for her.”

With that declaration Abby handed Jenny a brochure for the nursing school that she herself had attended. “Just keep your grades high, and you can get a scholarship like I did,” Abby offered. “One day I want to look up and see you standing next to me as we both attend to bringing a new baby into the world.” She went on to explain that nursing school only takes two years, and that in just three years from now Jenny could be making $20-$30 an hour, enough to raise her child in a safe neighborhood, and begin a college fund for her years before she would need it.

“Do you really think I am that smart?” Jenny inquired. “Of course you are! Abby effused. “Now get busy on that stack of school books, and enroll in college prep classes as a senior. Oh yes, and if you need advice and encouragement along the way, just call me. My number is on the back of the brochure.”

Jenny did phone Abby many times over the three years she struggled to live on welfare, stay in school, and complete a nursing degree. Abby always found time to reassure her, comfort her, and help her think through her problems. Today, nearly two decades later, Jenny is a Nurse Midwife with a Masters Degree in her specialty area, and her daughter is graduating high school this spring as valedictorian of her class. The college money is in the bank, although, with all of the academic scholarship opportunities available to her daughter, Jenny probably won’t need to spend much of it on tuition.

The cycle of generational poverty has been broken, all because of the kindness of a nurse who put her nose where it didn’t belong, and had the audacity to plant a dream in the mind of a young woman in whom she saw potential.


[QN.No.#25. Which statement is true?]

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Question No.25. Which statement is true?

a. Money alone can solve poverty.
b. All people who live in poverty want to move into the middle class.
c. With support, encouragement, and a strong will to succeed, people can move out of poverty.
d. All people who live in poverty appreciate the help they are given.

 
The Culture of Generational Poverty > Chapter 8 - Overcoming Obstacles to Helping
Page Last Modified On: April 28, 2015, 08:50 PM