A little-known fact about me: just out of college and eager to save the world, I worked with poverty programs for quite a few years, in fact (long story) that’s how I became a technology professional. The same idealism drove my later focus on the social web and online community. When I saw that this year’s Blog Action Day was about poverty, I quickly signed on, and I also signed on with local bloggers committed to the Blog Action Day project. (Some of my colleagues, like Bob Carlton, were thinking to spend a night at a homeless shelter.)
If you haven’t spent much time focused on poverty, it’s an abstraction, your perceptions based on random encounters with “the disadvantaged,” media coverage, and probably mental autofill based on your unschooled sense of what it would mean to be without appreciable income and resources. In my years as a caseworker, I saw a world that was hidden and unfamiliar. The poor are hidden from view both physically and conceptually. We’re in state of denial about poverty, and assume that people can only be poor because of their own shortcomings – it was common to hear that they’re “lazy, don’t want to work, want to live off the public dole.” I met few,if any, that fit that description. Many I met were working poor who never had the network of suppports and resources, the social safety net, that I had known. Some were sick. Some had spectacularly bad luck that persistently set them back. Some were destabilized by cycles of addiction and recovery. Many were only temporarily what you would call “poor,” and working hard to change their circumstances.
I met many whose lives had little of the structure I had known as an upper-middle-class white kid in West Texas – the structure and rhythms that set the stable path through school, through college, into a career. They were struggling with notions and disciplines that many of us take for granted. The “basic job skills” training programs were set up to create the habits and disciplines they’d missed.
One way to think about poverty: it has no single cause, and to talk about fixing the problem of poverty is like talking about curing disease – which disease? The cures vary, depending on the specifics of the condition.
On the other hand, many common diseases are associated with lifestyle, they’re systemic, and can be addressed by corrections to cultural systems and assumptions. Consider the negative health impact of efficient production and distribution of high-fat, high-calorie fast food, and the positive impact of retooling to produce fast foods that have less fat, fewer calories, more nutrition. I.e. just thinking about the problem, thinking about what has to change, taking relevant action yourself and demanding action from others, can have a positive effect.
So I think asking bloggers to focus on poverty is a great first step.