Moving Past Poverty

Poverty’s Palabra

Caroline Skinner with her four children.
Caroline Skinner with her four children.

Imagine yourself in a foreign land. You do not speak the language. With no translator and nowhere to turn, what can you do?

Being in poverty is a lot like that. In A Framework for Understanding Poverty, author Ruby Payne defines poverty as “the extent to which an individual does without resources” such as financial, emotional, mental, spiritual, physical, support systems including significant relationships and role models and knowledge of the hidden rules of social classes (the “secret language” of school and work).

Commonly, generational poverty is acknowledged but what isn’t always recognized is situational poverty such as death, divorce, cancer or illness. Payne notes four paths to leaving poverty: 1) sufficient pain in staying; 2) a goal or aspiration; 3) mentor or relationship; 4) a highly sought after skill or talent.

Neither of my parents completed high school. Only three years into their marriage, my dad abandoned us, leaving us in situational impoverishment. People in poverty live and spend for today without a thought of the future. My mom’s lack of skill and education found us constantly evicted. We were homeless. Imagine a teenager’s humiliation, fearing anyone would find out that she is living in a rusted out Ford LTD. How on earth could I break free from this?

First, I had significant role models in my paternal grandmother and aunt. What role models do is teach–and as Payne notes, education IS a way out of poverty.

Second, I had a set of special skills; a heart (where my home truly was); a brain; and courage. To glean from pop culture, I guess you could say I was divergent because I had no finite limits.

Third, I had another special skill: I could speak another language fluently. A huge beneficial resource.

I married someone who didn’t come from divorce, had a closely knit family, was private school and college educated, although culturally impoverished because he was not fluent in English. 

Fast forward 22 years later, I discovered my husband was waking up every day putting on an Academy Award worthy act and my world crumbled around me as I had a leading role. He was gay and terrified of loss and rejection is an understatement. Although today we remain good friends and my spiritual wealth has been reshaped greatly, the divorce created a huge situational poverty in my life, his life, and the lives of our four children as well.

I quickly found work as an ESOL paraprofessional for $8 per hour, which synced with my kids’ school schedule. I attended college at night, cradled hope for better things if I worked hard and most importantly, I went to counseling and relied on faith. For me, the secret of not slipping back into generational poverty was to build up my emotional wealth. This way I could use what little I had to its maximum potential.

I finally graduated with my bachelor’s degree in 2012, and then was employed at Stetson University. What Stetson means to me, my family, and our future is a mentored place of work that is a beautiful, conducive environment for the lifelong curious student, like me. It means an M.B.A. for me, and college for my children as an employee benefit. I am even provided time for professional development!

So now that you understand poverty for what it really is, here is what you can do: If you are healthy, mentally well, spiritually full, physically wealthy, have a surplus of support systems and knowledge of the “rules of middle class” (the language spoken in the land of school and business), mentor someone in need. Alongside education, mentoring is critical in being successful in life and breaking poverty cycles. Poverty is neither political nor economic. It is about behavior–not just of those in poverty but also of those in middle class and wealth, who often mistakenly believe that people in poverty are unintelligent, untrustworthy, or dirty. Use every resource you have to live excellently for posterity. Value the internal assets that all people have to offer and moreover, teach them how to value their own internal assets. Such are a wellspring of rich resources. Because, in order to truly be significant, you’ve also got to be divergent!

by Caroline Skinner

The above was written by Caroline Skinner, one of the presenters at last year’s TEDx event at Stetson. Caroline is administrative assistant in Stetson’s School of Business Administration. Stetson University’s 2015 TEDx event is Friday, March 27, 4:00-6:30 p.m., in Allen Hall. This year’s theme is “The Essence of a Changing Society: Technology, Ideas and Social Change.”