By Donella Meadows
–November 20, 1997–
A few weeks ago I wrote a column about population growth and poverty. In response came a letter that took my breath away. It says, in part:
“I was born into a very poor family. I’m the oldest of seven, and my mother also had five miscarriages. Since she was ill most of the time and my father was in and out of jail, we lived on “relief” (as it was then called) in a roach-infested 4-room cold-water apartment. I basically raised my brothers and sisters from the time I was seven.
“I was seduced when I was 15 by a 21-year-old man — the first man who had ever made me feel special. Though I was a straight-A student, I had to leave school when I became pregnant. He did marry me and support me (somewhat, through criminal activities). We had three children by the time I was 18. I won scholarships to go to school at night (while working full time during the day), ultimately earning an MBA. After 14 years of misery I could take the kids and leave him.
He fathered many illegitimate children. Some of them have fallen into the same pattern of unwed parenthood, poverty, and crime. The same thing has happened to some of my brothers and sisters. One sister has six children by five different men and has lived on welfare her entire life. The violence, depravity, and suffering she and her children have gone through is beyond most people’s ability to comprehend.
“I’m now a manager at AT&T, and my current husband and I recently were able to buy a lovely home. My children suffered some ill effects from growing up in a bad neighborhood, but I was able to shield them from a lot.
“My current husband was raised in a loving and comfortable environment. I won’t say his childhood was perfect, but it was idyllic in comparison to mine. I read your article to him and asked him what he thought. ‘Why do these irresponsible people blame society for their problems?’ was his response.
“I was stunned — this from a good, kind, caring man! I pointed out that I was one of those ‘irresponsible’ people. But then I realized he can’t understand, because he’s never experienced these terrible circumstances. He can’t even stand to hear my stories.
“It seems the more you need help, the easier it is for the fortunate to blame you and legislate against you, believing they’ve ‘earned’ their situation, so the same must go for you. We cheerfully spend billions on military defense against ‘enemies,’ but we begrudge every dollar spent defending our own children from evil forces much closer to home. I wonder if this kind of thinking is at the heart of the public’s inability to understand or enact programs that could end poverty?
“Sincerely, Rose M. Berkowitz”
I asked Ms. Berkowitz if I could make her letter public. And I asked her, “Could society have helped you? Can we help those who are still caught in the poverty cycle?”
She answered with a bit about specific programs. “For example, we need long-term shelters for battered women and their children, where they can stay until they have been counseled, educated, outfitted for a good job and helped to find safe and decent housing. There are local programs already in place throughout the country. These could be studied and the best ideas applied on a nationwide basis.”
But she most wants to work on the impasse she felt with her current husband: the difficulty of reaching across barrier of different experience. She wants us to take up the challenge of communicating, emphathizing, understanding.
“Well-off people may feel justified in having a conniption because they can’t find the right new outfit or they may get drunk because they have to postpone their vacation. But they can’t understand how a poor father can lash out in frustration because he can’t find a job, or how an abused teenage girl can turn to drugs or sex for solace.
“If people could understand, they would see how to take action. There are two things to understand, the cycle of low self-esteem, poverty and abuse on one side and the cycle of self-righteousness, materialism and indifference on the other.
Then she makes a suggestion so crashingly obvious I can’t imagine why we haven’t done it long ago: “Why not ask those who need help how they want to be helped, rather than imposing uninformed ideas? Why not get people like me, who have lived in poverty and who have gotten out, to provide input to social programs?”
I can’t imagine why not, unless we are afraid of looking poverty in the eye, learning the names and stories of the people caught in it, and seeking sincerely to help them, or at least to stop labeling them all “irresponsible.” Poverty isn’t catching. We won’t get it by coming close. Quite the contrary, if we continue to keep our distance, poverty will touch us anyway, through its waves of violence, misery, and unplanned, unloved, uneducated, abused, damaged children.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997