CHARLOTTE, N.C. (CNS) — Poverty is more than the lack of money, and until we understand its root causes, it cannot be eradicated.

That was one of the messages heard by more than 500 representatives from Catholic Charities agencies from across the U.S. who gathered Oct. 4-7 for their annual meeting in Charlotte.

In her Oct. 5 keynote speech, Ruby Payne, an internationally recognized author and anti-poverty expert, shared data based largely on her book “Framework for Understanding Poverty: A Cognitive Approach,” and her more than 20 years of experience as a public school educator.

Her “Bridges Out of Poverty” approach has been adopted by a number of Catholic Charities agencies across the country as a model for programs to better serve those in need.

The program provides workshops and tools to help employers, community organizations, social service agencies, families and individuals address and reduce poverty in a comprehensive way.

“One of the reasons in America we have never been able to come up with a solution for poverty is that there is no agreement on causation,” Payne said.

She said poverty can be traced to four basic causes: people’s personal choices; economic resources available in the community; exploitation; and people’s personal and financial history.

Speaking about the second cause, Payne said, “The subject of economic resources really boils down to jobs. Even if people make all the right choices, if there are no jobs in your community, you’re really in trouble.”

Racism, sexism and financial predators also could keep someone from improving their lives, she explained, or they could be held back because prospective employers based their hiring decisions on a candidate’s credit history, for example.

“If you are on the political right, you think it’s about the first two (causes). If you are on the political left, you think it’s about the last two. So what happens in the community? People start fighting about causation,” she said.

However, the causes of poverty are not so ideologically clear-cut, she said. “Actually, all four of them create poverty.”

Payne also emphasized that poverty is more than just about the lack of money. Poverty is about “a larger set of resources,” she said. That means that anti-poverty efforts and anti-poverty research must be about “moving from getting by to getting ahead.”

“A lot of the data is collected on maintenance, but we have almost no good data on what happens when people transition,” she noted. “We are using duct-tape models of compliance and standardization, instead of models where we develop human capacity and resources.”

Key to helping people out of poverty, she said, is understanding their different mindset. One of the main barriers in helping the under-resourced is a lack of this understanding, she said.

“People don’t understand each other’s environments. And one of the things we do is say: ‘Hey, once you know the other person’s environment, it can help you communicate with them.’ When you are in a survival environment, it’s a very different environment than when you have much too many resources. And this leads to hidden rules. The reason hidden rules become important is they break relationships. And what happens, people get offended. And on the community level, then, it becomes very difficult for the community to work together,” she emphasized.

Regardless of where or how people live, Payne continued, all people make decisions based on “three things: work, achievement and material security. If you live in poverty, you don’t have material security.”

The lack of material security breeds a continual level of fear and stress, which can prompt people to rely more on their instincts and feelings in making choices, Payne said.

“Researchers say that early memories, until you’re 9 or 10 years old, are stored in your amygdala,” she said “The amygdala is fascinating. The amygdala has a short-term memory for the incident, but a long-term-memory for the feeling or the experience. And because it happens before you have words to assign to experience, you continue to act on that, even though you don’t always know why.”

Payne said that information is useful in understanding people’s behavior because “we know from research that if you have to choose between acting from experience, or acting on new information, you will almost always choose experience.”

Anti-poverty efforts must take into account the deep-seated experiences, environments and relationships of those who are poor, and strive to provide them with information, resources and connections to more productive environments and relationships, she said.

Improving employment, education and relationship opportunities for the poor are key, she said, because that also will impact their thinking and help them better navigate their reality.

But that’s not all, she said.

“To address the issue of the unequal-resourced, we do four things,” she said.

“Number one, educate the resourced (wealthy people) because that impacts on their decision (to support the organizations that help the under-resourced). Number two, educate the under-resourced. Number three, we are a resource for the community,” she said. “And number four, we ask that individuals from poverty be at the decision table.”


De Silva is a reporter with the Catholic News Herald, the newspaper of the Diocese of Charlotte.