Christ once commented, “The poor you will always have with you,” and indeed, human poverty seems an intractable problem. The United States has always had innumerable charitable and beneficent organizations and associations dedicated to alleviated poverty. And since President Lyndon Johnson declared a “war on poverty” over 50 years ago, the federal and state governments have spent nearly $22 trillion, with virtually no drop in the poverty rate.
The hard part is not spending money on poverty. The hard part is moving people out of poverty.
The St. Vincent de Paul Society has always been at the front lines of the “war on poverty.” While the Society continues to offer the immediate help for which it is well-known—food pantries, thrift stores, and home visits, among others—it has expanded to incorporate contemporary thinking and research about different causes of poverty, and correspondingly different methods of addressing it.
In creating and delivering its programs and services, the St. Vincent de Paul Society of St. Joseph County now draws heavily from works like Bridges Out of Poverty, a book written in 2001 by Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D., Philip DeVol, and Terie Dreussi Smith. Bridges defines different types of poverty, and explains that identifying the type of poverty a family is dealing with is critical to formulating a response that has the best chance of remediating—rather than perpetuating—the family’s circumstances.
The authors distinguish between situational poverty and generational poverty.
Situational poverty is a loss of income caused by an event—such as a divorce, job loss, or death of the family’s primary breadwinner—that suddenly drops a person or family below the poverty level. An individual or family that has fallen into situational poverty has a very good chance of regaining their economic footing with the use of government programs like food stamps or TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and targeted charitable giving. Generational poverty, by contrast, is defined as poverty which has persisted within a family for two generations or more. Generational poverty might begin with situational poverty; it is possible for a series of life events to create a downward spiral for a family.
Unlike those in situational poverty, however, government programs or handouts do not tend to lift those in generational poverty out of it.
This is not, contrary to popular belief, because people living in generational poverty are lazy or do not want to work. But by the time two generations of a family have lived in poverty, distinct social norms of poverty have taken root, which Bridges refers to as “hidden rules”: unspoken cues or habits that tend to dictate how people in a group navigate different situations.
The hidden rules of poverty are markedly different than those of families in stable economic situations. These include attitudes about money (what to spend it on), time (the present is most important; there is little to no future planning), food (is there enough?) and power (linked to individual respect and the ability to fight). No support will be effective and no changes to a family’s circumstances can be permanent unless these hidden rules are recognized—and changed.
The National Council of the St. Vincent de Paul Society has as its mission statement “seeking to achieve systemic change.” Saint Vincent de Paul (SVdP) of St. Joseph County is pursuing systemic change in the local community by developing what it calls the “four pillars of service”: Survival, Support, Self-Sufficiency, and Success. These pillars reflect the differing nature of poverty.
The Survival programs and services provide food, clothing, and furniture to families in immediate need. The intent of these programs is to help families through emergency situations—making sure they have enough food until their food stamps come in, or seeing to it that their children have clothing for school. For families living in generational poverty, these programs are little more than a band-aid, treating symptoms rather than addressing the underlying problems they are facing. But there will always be those whose need is urgent, and the Society is dedicated to meeting those needs without reservation or judgment.
The second pillar, Support, is where SVdP has a chance to begin to work with individuals and families on a one-on-one basis, to help them make longer-lasting changes in their lives. As part of the Support pillar, SVdP provides financial assistance for rent and utilities, personalized financial counseling programs, and assistance with resume building and job searches. SVdP also has a micro-loan program for persons with a barrier to employment (car problems, medical bills, etc.). The micro-loan program is a one-time, interest-free loan of up to $500 that is administered by Notre Dame Federal Credit Union. The loan gives the participant the opportunity to improve their credit score through regular payments, establish a positive banking relationship, and avoid the high interest rate payday loans.
The third pillar—Self-Sufficiency—is where the core of the work towards reducing poverty through systemic change is done. To achieve this, the Society offers three different educational programs aimed at helping families navigate the hidden rules of poverty and make positive changes in their lives. Now in its fifth year, “Food for Thought” is a locally-developed afterschool program that pairs children living in poverty with tutors in a mentoring relationship. Twice-weekly tutoring sessions help the children develop study skills and positive interactions with other children and adults. Parents of the children in the program are required to attend a “Family Dinner” night with their children every month. Parents and children learn to prepare a healthy meal on a budget with food that can typically be found in a food pantry, but the magic happens when all the participants (students, tutors, teachers, staff, parents, etc.) sit down and eat the meal together. This basic conversation over the dinner table is a mechanism for effective parental engagement and community building outside of one’s family.
The Society also offers “Financial Foundations,” a course in basic money management: opening and balancing bank accounts, staying away from payday lending, saving and giving. Twice every year, SVdP offers “Getting Ahead in a Just Getting By World,” a course launched by the Bridges authors for individuals living in poverty who wish to make changes—behavioral, not just financial—in their lives. This course gives participants ultimate power in determining what changes they need to make to succeed.
Just last year, the St. Vincent DePaul Society of St. Joseph County served over 65,000 people. But the last pillar, Success, is the Society’s definition of a positive outcome and ultimate goal: to reduce the amount of people who need our services more than four times a year, and to have them become stable enough to no longer need our services or governmental assistance.
Alleviating poverty for good requires more than compassion; it requires an in-depth understanding of the myriad causes of poverty, and a willingness to respond uniquely to each one.
Anne Hosinski Watson (ND ’99) is the Executive Director of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society for St. Joseph County. Laura Hollis is an Associate Professional Specialist in the Mendoza College of Business and currently serves as Vice President of the St. Vincent de Paul Society Executive Board.