The Unspoken Topic
Year-round, I sleep with the windows open. Even in the dead of winter, a good, comfortable night’s sleep is only possible for me if the room is cold. My patient wife forbears. She forgives me this remnant from childhood, when my brothers and I slept four to a bed in one broken-down house after another in the backwoods of rural Tennessee. Cracks between the bare, wood-planked walls and floors left us vulnerable to weather from all sides. Cold licked at the windows and freezing night air hung heavily on thin blankets. We lived like itinerant refugees, without a permanent home, without permanent things, without electricity or running water, no phone, no books, sometimes no food. “Dirt poor” is defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as “lacking most of the necessities of life.” That was us. That was me—an American child born into generational poverty, following in the footsteps of my mother and father and their mothers and fathers before them.
Generational poverty victims are families, like my own, trapped generation after generation into a crushing cycle of poverty, and into a particular insular mindset that perpetuates the cycle and offers a pipeline to nowhere—or maybe to prison. We are the unspoken topic in America. Looking back on it now I realize that the true discrimination that comes out of generational poverty is the lack of public debate on this subject matter.
Generational poverty isolates you, degrades your sense of self-worth, renders you a third-class citizen, leaves you feeling un-whole and unheard, exposes you to violence and to the constant stress of deprivation—survival is not something you can take for granted. It’s a culture unto itself and the mindset comes with a set of hidden rules that govern every aspect of life. From an early age, you are taught to mistrust the “outside” or dominant culture, which is seen as “putting on airs,” a behavior despised by the generational poor. Expressing an interest in basic middle-class values like hard work and education is considered “getting above your raisings.” Yet, it is precisely exposure to the mainstream, especially in the form of appropriate role models that can crack the hard shell of generational poverty, letting in some light and offering a way out. Sadly, most victims of generational poverty will never have an appropriate role model.
I say this from my own direct experience. I clawed and crawled my way into the mainstream. At age eighteen, I applied to a Job Corps program where I began to learn from role models how to use words instead of my fists. This was the start of my mastering a whole other—and initially alien—set of social rules and behaviors. The learning process was long and excruciating at times, but necessary if I wanted to move forward and have a life.
I made it out, but few others do and few will until there exists greater understanding for, and by, the poorest of the poor.