Poverty is perceived and understood in many ways in the U.S. and more often than not those views are shaped by personal values, beliefs and of course experiences. Even so, in general ideas about poverty in our country can be divided into two broad categories: as an individual problem or the result of structural and institutional barriers.
To those who see poverty as an individual problem, poverty is blamed on the behavior, attitudes, and values of individuals. People that blame the individual for living in poverty tend to not recognize or acknowledge external factors and some go further, believing that those living in poverty don’t share in the cultural ‘norms’ of society. Historically, many national policies have been shaped by the idea that poverty is the result of individual circumstances and look at ways that society can strengthen the human capital of poor people, such as mentoring programs. The idea is that by addressing individual needs or even deficiencies we have a chance of bringing them out of poverty. It is true that an individual who lacks motivation and drive to seek better opportunities for themselves will always fall short.
Another broad perspective is based on the idea that institutional barriers and systems perpetuate poverty. The most common cited are racism, economic inequality and patriarchal society. Massey and Denton argued in American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Under-class that racism is a critical foundational cause of severe poverty, especially in the black community. Patriarchal society has been the foundation of our nation and may help to explain the disproportionately high rate of poverty among women. Women across racial lines experience a higher rate of poverty than men and many families headed by single mothers are living under the poverty line. Rising economic inequality has “produced a geographic concentration of affluence and poverty” as Philip Young Hong, professor of social work at Loyola University of Chicago, wrote about in his paper Glocalizing Structural Poverty: Reclaiming Hope for Children and Families. This is one explanation for the highly concentrated poverty rates in Savannah. This institutional perspective views poverty as the result of policy and business or market decisions and choices about how to allocate goods and resources.
These two schools of thought seem to exist mutually exclusively. However, Step Up seeks to combine these approaches when addressing poverty. Poverty is not simply the fault of the individual or the structure. Poor people do not exist outside what is ‘normal’ behavior as we saw during our nation’s economic recession. Many hard-working people’s lives were changed dramatically. Nonetheless, each person does play a significant role in helping themselves and working towards a life of self-sufficiency. Even when individuals are helping themselves out of poverty the structural causes of poverty still need to be addressed. Identifying institutions that sustain poverty while simultaneously motivating poverty-stricken individuals is the most holistic way to address this issue buy it’s also more complex and requires a greater commitment of time.