While poverty can take away many things from people, dignity may be their most damaging loss.
With low self-esteem comes a lack of hope they can rise out of poverty.
“I have seen, and I do see, self-esteem issues,” said Brandee Thomas, executive director of My Sister’s Place, a shelter that helps women become more self-sufficient. “A lot of our ladies when they come to us, they have been through generational cycles of poverty. This is all they know. Their family only ever lived in public housing, so they think that’s all that’s available to them; that’s all that they deserve.”
Thomas said lack of dignity can be compounded by the others’ attitudes.
“There definitely is this perception that if you’re poor or you’re in poverty, you only deserve this,” Thomas said. “In looking at some of the things we have received in the past through the shelter, they’re not really wearable. But because you’re in poverty, this is all you deserve. You don’t deserve fresh fruits and vegetables or you don’t deserve a well-balanced meal.
“You have to be mindful of that if someone just comes in and they want to bring 50 canned goods that expired 10 years ago. Well, you know, I’m not comfortable serving that to my family, so I’m not comfortable serving it to these families. (They say) ‘Well, they’ll be fine. If they’re hungry they’ll eat it.’ That’s not fair.”
Joy Griffin, president and chief professional officer for the United Way of Hall County, said when few choices are offered, it affects dignity.
“I think what that does is it develops the attitude of ‘My path is not my choice. I have to take what is given to me and do my best with it,’” she said. “When you can slowly put some of that choice back, suddenly you choose, ‘You know what, I do want to take this risk for getting this extra training at the technical college or getting my GED and making that choice for my career. Maybe I don’t have to work in this industry like my father did.’ It empowers them to make positive choices.”
It can start with simple choices such joining a food co-op, where those in need can pay or volunteer to work and then select the foods they want for their family.
Griffin said those providing services to people in poverty “have for many years given a middle-class perspective to our solutions.”
“We have not asked the person experiencing poverty, ‘What would help you?’” Griffin said.
Some may visit food banks and churches on a schedule to feed their family, but there are “so many obstacles that if you’ve never experienced poverty, you’re simply blind to,” she added. “We use our lens and say, ‘They’re just lazy.’ That’s not the case. Certainly, there’s always some exceptions. There are some who just don’t want to work or have a barrier that’s larger than others, but I truly believe that is not the case for all.”
Thomas said she has seen judgment of the poor from people interested in touring the shelter.
“They want to use the shelter as a ‘Scared Straight’ opportunity for their teenagers or whoever, just to say, ‘If you don’t study, this is where you’re going to end up’ — which is totally unfair,” she said. “It’s not a zoo; it’s a place where people are living to try and get help and try to get on their feet.”
Some judge without all the facts. Thomas said she hears things like “you shouldn’t be able to wear Nikes because you’re poor.”
“Well, those Nikes could very well have been donated,” she said.
Thomas said My Sister’s Place seeks to refer clients to those who can help them with specific needs.
“We always make referrals that we would want ourselves and not put them in a position where someone is going to make certain judgments or they’re going to look down upon them because they are poor,” she said. “Because they are in the shelter, people want to take away their ability to make choices. That’s not fair; they’re adults.”
The shelter also has a counselor who comes in every other week “to help them with self-empowerment.”
Griffin said opportunities for self-empowerment are available in programs like Move On When Ready and other dual enrollment options for young students looking to earn cheap or free college credit while they are still in high school.
The programs can provide job training as well and a living wage even for young heads of households.
“I think that begins to break that generational poverty cycle,” Griffin added. “You start in high school, you have those positive mentors and teachers who say, ‘You can be a welder, you can be an EMT. You can do that now. You don’t have to have money. You don’t have to get in college.’”