Fight the Poverty, Not the People


There is not a “culture of poverty” that perpetuates poverty, but rather systemic structural causes of poverty. My mantra is, “Fight the poverty, not the people in it!” But a recent book review in the New York Times discussed a new book that raised serious concerns for me about reinforced stereotypes of people living in the crisis of poverty and what people believe causes poverty.

In June 2016, J.D. Vance published Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. According to the Times article, it appears that Mr. Vance did have a lived experience of poverty and struggled with a mother who wrestled with addiction and mental health issues and brought a trail of stepfathers into his life. These combined experiences created a lot of trauma for Mr. Vance. While his family did come from the Kentucky Hills, Mr. Vance’s great-grandparents owned a three-bedroom home with property. His grandmother was a “the most skilled auto mechanic” in town. Mr. Vance attributes his ultimate path out of poverty to support from his grandparents (and four years in the Marines). The article goes on to say that he was able to achieve an elite education from Yale Law School, but not what social capital allowed him to do so. Who mentored him? Where did he live? Who assisted him with knowledge gaps? These important variables were not discussed.

The article states that the book is an attempt to capture the story of “kinfolk.” But rather than illuminate economic and opportunity gaps, Mr. Vance holds his family responsible for their misfortunes. The article explains, “Economic insecurity, he’s convinced, accounts for only a small part of his community’s problems; the much larger issue is hillbilly culture itself. Though proud of it in many ways, he’s also convinced that it ‘increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.’” Much like others have done in the past with African Americans or Native Americans, he preaches tough love and responsibility.

People are not the cause of poverty. There are real causes that Mr. Vance does not emphasize such as the lack of affordable, safe housing. He does not point out the differences in schools for those in poverty and those from privilege. There is no discussion of the struggles with transportation to access opportunities. Nor is there identification of his mother’s mental health issues. A centered, healthy mom is not going to drive fast and tell her child she is going “kill the two of them” as Mr. Vance’s mother did. This mom needed mental health services as well as addiction treatment. But the focus in the book is on her “bad behavior,” which is attributed to the “Hillbilly” culture.

The reviewer writes, “Now, along comes Mr. Vance, offering a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass... Combining thoughtful inquiry with firsthand experience....” Because he is an “authentic voice” speaking from his own experiences, I fear many people will believe his message and form their political views and social policies from his assertions. Beliefs such as, “they just need to be determined,” “they need to be more motivated,” or “they need to work harder,” and other blaming/judging attitudes will be reinforced.

While there is much to learn from authentic voices sharing their stories of poverty, it is essential to contextualize these stories. Typically, when someone writes about poverty, their lived experience becomes the frame of reference for all lived experiences of poverty. But, it is essential to understand the different life experiences of poverty (e.g., generational, working class, immigrant, situational, mixed class and other lived experiences) and how they impact our fellow human beings. Knowing the facts about the true causes of poverty allows us to focus on those causes to ensure we are fighting the poverty, not the people who live in it.

I expect to hear Mr. Vance’s book cited as reasons for cutting services and creating polices that punish people for existing in impoverished conditions. Because of this, we will need to be sure we are poverty-informed and use our knowledge and facts to counter the negative effects of spreading the stereotypes in this book within our communities, our organizations, and our schools.

Donna Beegle grew up in generational migrant labor poverty and is the only member of her family that was not incarcerated. She left school for marriage at 15, had two children and found herself at 25 with no husband, little education, and no job skills. With help from a federal poverty program, she got a G.E.D., an associate degree in journalism, a B.A. (with honors) in communications, a master’s degree in communication with a minor in gender studies (with honors), and a doctorate in education. She is president of Communication Across Barriers (, a consulting firm devoted to improving communication and relationships across poverty barriers. Beegle is also founder of the Opportunity Community Model, a community-wide, poverty informed model for eradicating poverty. The model also provides direct opportunities for people living in the crisis of poverty.

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2016

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