The Allure of Poverty

Why do some people, generation after generation, remain poor? Their mommas and daddies are poor. And now it seems their children are hurtling headlong toward poverty—hurtling with frightening deliberateness and haste.

For years, humans have searched for explanations of poverty’s resistance to eradication. Researchers have conducted hundreds of studies in attempts to understand the mechanics that foster, maintain, and perpetuate impoverished conditions. Social activists have worked endlessly, hoping their services would somehow lessen poverty’s debilitating effects on individuals and families. Government programs have offered training, employment, and millions of dollars to fight the perpetuity of poor conditions. Yet, despite these efforts as well as the availability of endless opportunities in the United States, poverty remains virulent.

While growing up I noticed that as a family we weren’t very unhappy. Yes, we were po’ (i.e., approximately two or three levels below poor) but looking back objectively it wasn’t really that bad. Yes, there were countless times when we had little to eat, and even less to wear. And, like the vast majority of families in my neighborhood, we struggled. My father, a general laborer and a hustler (in the good way), worked hard to provide for us. Mom worked as well but seemed always to have time to administer a whipping when it was needed. It was not until I enrolled in college, and began taking courses in sociology, history, and psychology that I learned just how unhappy I was supposed to be as a black child living in a ghetto.

Yes, we were po’ and we struggled. But here’s the difference between my family of now working and retired professions and our chronically poor neighbors: Our impoverishment did not extend beyond financial. No poverty of spirit entered the modest abode we shared with roaches. No poverty of motivation was tolerated by my country-ass parents, aunts, and uncles. No poverty of future orientation was given quarter while my mother taught me the wonders of iron-on patches and cardboard stuffed into holey shoes until we could do better. We struggled mightily, but we advanced. 


Now here we are. Fifty years past the Civil Rights Era. And, one hundred years more past Emancipation. Five generations beyond slavery, folks. Count ‘em, five!

Sociologists, historians, economists, social service providers, and politicians are able to talk incessantly about the conditions that served in the past and now serve presently to contribute to poverty. But, when it really comes down to it, who cares about what those folks have to say? At some point, despite the efforts of either well-intentioned or evil-intentioned persons, we must take a good, hard look at ourselves.

Wow! Did you hear that? That deafening loud noise! That sudden stampede of apologists come galloping forward? Millions of riders. Pushing their steeds. So very quickly coming to our defense. So very motivated to make allowances. Of course. Would you expect anything less? There are millions and millions of people who either make their livelihood on race disparities or who benefit psychologically from these disparities by ensuring that the bottom rung remains Dark. They mount their horses and ride their theories, their rationalizations, and their misguided assistance into the fray of our confused economic identity. So quickly they proffer up their old standby. It goes like this: “You shouldn’t assert such ideas, Dr. Davison. It’s irresponsible and insensitive. Don’t you know, Sir? Aren’t you aware, brother? You’re [Here it comes. Get ready for it. Ready? Drum roll, please.] blaming the victim.

Now, at that point, I am supposed to sulk away—shamed by my insensitive and uncharitable perspective. Discussion of the merit of my invoking self-inspection be damned. Burn the witch at the stake, or at minimum in effigy. However, don’t be fooled. Such conversation and logic ending phrases like blaming the victim, ultimately serve to keep poor persons exactly where they are— in an impoverished state. Financially, spiritually, motivationally, and psychologically. And, given the years that have passed since slavery, it has worked spectacularly.

I am not a historian, or an economist, or a social worker, or even a politician. And I certainly am not an apologist. I’m a black boy from a ghetto; now a psychologist; trained both in social and clinical psychology. And, like any psychologist worth their salt, my job is not only to support individuals, but also challenge them to look beyond blaming others, and the circumstances in which they might find themselves. My job is to help people look inward and to move forward. So, if you are sincerely in your heart interested in improvement you should now ponder and answer this central question:

All bullshit aside, am I, even if it includes some painful truths that I must now face, truly ready to move forward?

If the answer is NO, then please feel free to stop reading at this point. Enjoy your life, and I wish you well.

However, if the answer is YES, then please read on. 

This treatise is not designed to blame the victim. Rather, it is to point out that with assuming the victim stance comes a motivational inertia. In essence, a WAITING emerges. Waiting for racism to end. Waiting for Judgment Day. Waiting for reparations. Waiting on that settlement. Waiting for that lottery number to hit. And guess what. As a victim I need to do nothing but exist (And, WAIT!). No work, and most crucially, no self-inspection. That’s the allure.

Your status as Victim offers no end; only distraction and intoxication by the false protection of blaming others. But, together, we can move beyond waiting. My job will be to offer these words of direction and to lend some psychological expertise to persons attempting to move forward. Your job is to look at yourself, take stock of yourself, and as my best friend aptly terms it: GET BUSY!!!

There are a million excuses for not doing so, but none are (as is the case for most excuses) viable. Still unconvinced? Still insisting that you are a victim? Take a few moments to reflect upon the place you are in comparison to your grandparents. If you have moved forward, then BRAVO!!! If you haven’t then What the Hell Are You Waiting For?

I will not bore you with a history of our people. You know, the story; the malarkey; the hustle.

My people were brought over in chains. We were slaves for four hundred years. We built this country YADA, YADA, YADA.

Before we begin this journey forward, here’s some ABCs that must be incorporated.

The fact of the matter is YOU were not brought over in chains.

The fact of the matter is YOU were not a slave for four hundred (or even one) years.

The fact of the matter is YOU did not build this country.

And, most importantly, the fact of the matter is YOU must stop believing the hype.     

YOU are responsible for your life and outcomes. Not Martin, not Malcolm, not Jesse, not Louis, not Harriet, not the President, not your preacher, not the White Man, not your boss, not your spouse, not your Momma, not the Republicans, not the Democrats.

YOU are responsible for your life and outcomes. YOU. YOU. YOU. YOU.

You feelin’ me? Has that message gotten through? Good!

Well, that’s all the time we have for today. We’ll pick up again next week.

Until then:



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Dr. James Davison, Jr. is a licensed psychologist and university professor. He conducts a private practice in Seattle, Washington, and has appeared on several nationally-aired programs including The Phil Donahue Show, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and C-SPAN. Dr. Davison hails from Philadelphia, and is the author of several books – Prisoners Of Our Past and Sweet Release, and the upcoming Paid In Full – related to individuality and personal freedom for African-Americans.

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