Big Idea: It’s time to change the way we talk about poverty

Miners from deep-shaft mining days in Pittsburg, Kansas. Photo courtesy of Jason Wesco

“Whatever happened to the idea…that we all do better when we all do better?” 

                                                            — Former Senator Paul Wellstone

I live in the poorest town in the poorest county in Kansas. For years, our most critical natural resource was coal. It was the sole reason for the town’s founding.  We built a community around it. From England and Scotland and Wales we came, from Italy and Slovenia, from Alabama. We blasted coal, we dug coal, we loaded coal, we shipped coal out by railcar. Speaking thirty languages, with white skin, with black skin, breaking our backs, ruining our lungs to feed our families, to build a future, coal formed our culture. By 1913, 12,000 of us mined 7.2 million tons of it.

But then the coal fields played out.   

What happens when the economic engine that drives a community sputters to a halt? Who leaves, and who gets left behind? It is a seemingly never ending story that affects all of us. It is happening as you read this, where you read this. It may not be Slovenian coal miners who have a story to tell in your community.  Instead, it may be first generation immigrants in a meat packing plant or seventh generation Kansans working two minimum wage jobs. It may be the nice young family across the street or your elderly uncle who lives alone. It may be you.  

In Kansas and our country, we work harder than we did fifty years ago, but wages, adjusted for inflation, have stagnated. We are decimating rural communities, we are getting older, we are becoming sicker, we live in isolation and we are losing our sense of place, our community.  

Are we so busy longing for a Kansas that no longer exists that we don’t see the Kansas that does? That Kansas looks pretty bleak for the 875,000 Kansans who likely aren’t making ends meet.

We have choices to make. We can choose whether these trends are acceptable or not. If they are not, we can look for someone to blame. And generally what we do is blame the poor for being poor. Blame is easier than confronting large and harsh realities or changing an idealized vision of our communities (even if that vision died with Main Street years ago). We talk about bootstraps for people who can’t even afford shoes.

Or, we can attempt to understand these trends and the very real and immediate impact they have, today, in our communities, on our friends and neighbors. We can get busy doing something. Here’s a start:

  • We must stop blaming individuals for their circumstances. No one wants to be laid off, poor, sick and without hope. 
  • We must stop believing the only way to “make money” is to reduce labor costs. We must stop thinking the minimum wage is a livable wage. In my community, it takes about $38,000 annually for a family of three to be self-sufficient. Two people working full-time, minimum wage jobs earn about $30,000 per year.
  • We must stop pretending we live in a classless Kansas. We can seek to understand not only trends, but the particular plight of those in our community who are not getting by.
  • We must start believing we can do something. We can change our minds.  We can question our biases. We can make new policy.  
  • We can be kind. 

This post originally appeared on Humanities Kansas’ website, Sept. 4, 2019. Republished with permission.

Health Forward Foundation
2300 Main Street, Suite 304
Kansas City, MO 64108
(816) 241-7006