Each year, my fondest memory of Thanksgiving is the hidden dinner table covered by carved turkey, pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, tortillas and tamales. Many of you may not have had tortillas, tamales or other Mexican dishes at the dinner table, but you probably do share with me memories of an abundant amount of delicious food.
However, many in Riley County are not always as fortunate. According to a 2007 report from the U.S. Census Bureau, about one in five, or 20 percent of people in Riley County live in poverty — meaning one in five persons makes less than $10,210 of total income per year or a family of four has a household income less than $20,650 per year.
Many beliefs exist about those under the poverty threshold; some have come as far to say that there is a “culture of poverty.” A “culture” defined by characteristics of weak work ethics, low educational values and drug and alcohol abuse. However, worldwide empirical research has continuously demonstrated that there is no such thing as a “culture of poverty.” The differences in values and behaviors among people in poverty are as greatly variable as between those in poverty and the wealthy.
The idea that those in poverty suffer from a lack of motivation or weak work ethic is mythically false. Although continuously stereotyped as lazy, 83 percent of children from families in poverty have at least one employed parent. Additionally about 60 percent of these children have at least one parent who works full-time and year-round, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty. Furthermore the Economic Policy Institute reported that working adults in poverty spend more hours working each week than those above the poverty threshold.
To continue the idea that those in poverty have low educational values is also mythically false. Low-income parents have the same educational values as their wealthier counterparts, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. However, they may not take part in school functions because they work long hours and often multiple jobs, have jobs without paid leave and do not have access for safe and affordable childcare or public transportation.
Finally, the conception that those in poverty are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol is entirely false. The reality is that their wealthy counterparts abuse drugs and alcohol just as much, if not more. Drug use is more noticeable in poor neighborhoods but is equally existent in poor, middle class and wealthy communities, according to the American Journal of Public Health. Moreover, alcohol abuse is much more prevalent among the wealthy than among those in poverty, according to the American Sociological Association and a long history of empirical research.
There is not a “culture of poverty” and the concept will always be inherently false. These stereotypes exist to hide the truth behind classism. The greatest tool in creating stereotypes and avoiding responsibility is deficit theory. Deficit theory neglects research and reality by inaccurately claiming that those in poverty are in that situation because of their own moral and intellectual deficiencies.
Deficit theory only exists because of our society’s belief in well-established stereotypes and lack of societal responsibility to solve systemic conditions that support the cycle of poverty. By convincing ourselves that those in poverty are there because of their own deficits, we ignore and hide from the responsibility to eliminate systemic inequalities and support authentic antipoverty programs.
Too many do not share the memory of a plentiful Thanksgiving meal because they are exhaustingly working hard just to provide shelter, healthcare and transportation for themselves and family. Poverty is not an inevitable problem but one that can be solved through education, rejection of deficit theory and civic leadership.
In the past four years, the amount of donations and volunteers has declined, while the number of those in need of emergency help has increased, according the Flint Hills Breadbasket’s Web site. This holiday season take the time to volunteer, donate and support a local nonprofit organization like the Flint Hills Breadbasket or any other antipoverty organization. No matter if you can give a little or a lot, you can have a significant effect. Your donation of money or time will provide emergency assistance to many families we call our neighbors.
– Bobby Gomez is a senior in elementary education. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.