In our experience with breaking the cycle of poverty on the near East Side of Indianapolis, we have begun to recognize that poverty is not merely a function of financial position. Poverty is an oppressive force that can only be attenuated by equipping individuals, families, and neighborhoods with the tools they need to break the cycle of poverty. We believe that ten assets directly affect one’s ability to escape poverty:
-Knowledge of Dominant Culture
-A Future Orientation
Someone with only one to three of these assets will find themselves in deep crisis with a limited ability to fully function in society. If you give that person four to six assets, they may still be in crisis, but with an increased chance of finding stability. With seven or more of these assets, we can expect to see someone living a healthy and stable life.
Shepherd Community Center builds assets in our neighbors’ lives. We build then we measure, we continue to build, then remeasure until seven or more assets are prevalent. It is only through a deep entrenching of these assets in the 46201 zip code that we can start to see renewal on the near East Side of Indianapolis.
Tim Streett serves as the Assistant Director of Shepherd Community. He and his family have lived and worked among the urban poor for 28 years in cities including Boston and Chicago and Indianapolis. He has a significant teaching ministry and leads Shepherd’s educational outreach to partners and stakeholders, which includes the development and teaching of Poverty 101. Tim has a BS from Purdue University, an MDiv from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is currently a doctoral candidate at Bellarmine University. He is married to Stacy, who has been a partner in ministry for 25 years. They have two children.
Read Tim’s explanation of each asset by clicking on each one below.
Belief in not just a creator God, but in a personal God who provides divine purpose and guidance.
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. -Hebrews 11:1
At Shepherd our stated mission is to break the cycle of poverty. But as a Christian ministry our first goal is to follow the great commission and introduce people to Jesus as the Son of God and as a personal savior. We are unapologetic about this calling. But we also believe that it is essential to our stated mission.
Many who live their lives in generational poverty demonstrate a fatalistic attitude and an inferiority complex, which is imposed upon them by society. And we believe that a relationship with a loving and personal God is the first step to breaking that fatalism which is a necessary step to breaking the cycle of poverty.
This is particularly relevant in our context here at Shepherd because of the population of kids that we work with. Absent of a developmental issue I have never met a kid who wasn’t smart and intuitive. They pick up on everything. And the kids that we work with are too smart and too intuitive to miss the disconnect between what we tell them and what the world tells them.
Our message is that they are loved, that they are special, that they are unique and that they can have a bright future. The world’s message is that they are not as special as other children, that society doesn’t value them as much. They recognize that they don’t get what other children get. They get the leftovers of society if they get anything at all. They attend schools that are underfunded and often falling apart. They have few if any opportunities to play sports. They live in neighborhoods where the potholes are left unattended and the sidewalks are not repaired, where you’ll never see a street cleaner going up and down the road. And if any effort is made to improve the community it means that other people will be moving in and it’s only a matter of time before they must move out.
The message that they pick up from the world is that “you’re poor, you go to IPS, you live on the wrong side of the Monon Trail, you’re black, you’re a new immigrant, you’re not as valued by our society as other children. You don’t get what other children get. Society isn’t willing to spend its resources on you.”
This message became obvious to me several years ago. At Jireh Sports we had acquired an old baseball field that had served as the home of the Douglass Little League from 1950 through 1994. Douglass is one of the oldest continuously playing black little leagues in the country and it moved out of the neighborhood when the ballfield was shut down. Lead contamination was discovered in the soil and 45 years of little league on the Elsie Clark Field came to an end. This left the entire Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood without a place for a young boy or girl to play baseball. The ballfield had served as one of the centers of the community with hundreds of people watching neighborhood kids play almost every summer night. The Indianapolis Clowns, which was the last Negro Leagues team in existence, played exhibition games there. It was our hope to get the property cleaned up and build a little league ballpark and return Douglass to its original home.
Then one day Jay Height was at a meeting in the Mayor’s office when the head of Indy Parks struck up a conversation. He told Jay that he knew of our hopes and plans. But he said that if Shepherd wanted to run a little league we didn’t have to build anything new, we could run it in the park just up the street from Jireh. Well, he didn’t understand that we were not trying to run a league but return a historically significant league to its original home. But what struck me about the conversation when Jay told me about it was that I didn’t remember that there were any baseball fields in that park. And I lived right next to Jireh and used to walk through that park every morning.
So that afternoon I walked up there to see the fields and sure enough, there were two baseball fields there. By “two baseball fields” I mean there were two squares of dirt out in the middle of the big field and each had a chain link fence behind one of the corners. There were no dugouts, bleachers, restrooms, or refreshment stands.
About a week later I was up in Noblesville talking to a friend of mine and I told him this story. He put me in his car and drove me to the newest little league ballpark built in Indiana. It was gorgeous. There were eight fields in two gigantic circles with four home plates coming together in the middle of each circle. Between those home plates, there were restrooms, refreshment stands, and announcer’s booths. Each field had dugouts, bleachers, bullpens, scoreboards. I remember thinking that I had never played on anything like that when I was young.
I don’t begrudge the people in Noblesville building something that nice for their kids. What I cannot accept is the head of Indy Parks saying what’s up the street from Jireh is good enough for the kids in Martindale-Brightwood.
That is the message that we must fight against every day in our effort to convince the children in our care that they can have a bright future.
We are sure that the first step is convincing every child of one important fact, that is that they are not a mistake. They were knit together in their mother’s womb and that they are fearfully and wonderfully made by a God whose works are wonderful. They were created by a God who loves them and knows the number of hairs on their head just as He does you and me.
When a child can know this, and it becomes a part of how they see themselves then our work of convincing them that they can have a bright future becomes a little easier.
“For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand—
when I awake, I am still with you.”
Having the physical health and mobility that allows you to function at a job or at school and within social networks.
Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well. - Hebrews 13:16
If you have health, or what others might refer to as physical assets, it means you have the physical capacity to function at a job and in your home. It means that your body generally responds and does your bidding for whatever task you ask of it. This is an asset that many people in poverty possess to varying degrees. Health can seem obvious and self-explanatory. But there is more to understand.
Each of us possesses a certain image of ourselves. We think we understand what our strengths and our weaknesses are. During times of stress in our lives we call upon our strengths. Another way of saying that would be that we call upon the asset that we have the most confidence in. The stereotypical response that you might see in a movie or TV show of a very wealthy person during times of stress would be to throw money at the situation. Something’s gone wrong, someone’s been arrested, there’s been an accident, and they reach for their wallet. In other words, they try to buy their way out of the situation. I think that portrayal is based on the understanding that many people in generational wealth have great confidence in their money. This is certainly biblical. Proverbs 18:11 says, “The wealth of the rich is their fortified city; they imagine it a wall to high scale.”
The flipside of that is many people in generational poverty have great confidence in their to respond physically. It might be the only option they think they have. If the asset you have the most confidence in is your ability to respond physically then during times of stress you consider it a legitimate response. Many believe that this is part of the explanation about why there is so much violence in poverty. I don’t know how many times I’ve stood in front of a young man in one of our programs who was angry and who just wanted to punch something or someone. And when you look upon their face you realize that it is the only response that they have ever considered. But if you grow up in an environment where you’ve been taught that you should never let anybody mess with you, that your family and friends will “have your back” and that you must have theirs. and then you’re taught that fighting is okay, you would likely see fighting as your first alternative.
This lesson came home to me a few years ago in a very powerful way. When my son entered middle school he transferred from IPS to The Oaks Academy. During the first week of school, I found out that parents at The Oaks were encouraged to attend chapel on Wednesday mornings. So the very first week I was there standing in the back of the gym waiting for chapel to start. There was quiet music playing and the kids started to pour in. And I thought they were the most beautiful kids I had ever seen. Now I think all kids are beautiful but if you put the little girls in plaid jumpers with bows in their hair and you put the little boys in vests and neckties then they just stand out.
And as I was standing with my back up against the wall a first-grade teacher walked by me with her class in single file line behind her. She was walking across the back of the gym to circle around and sit near the front. But as she got about ten feet passed me she suddenly stopped to say something to another parent standing back there with me. As usually happens to a single-file line of first-graders when the first person in line stops, several of the kids bumped into each other as the line began to resemble an accordion. The little boy in front of me that I was watching ran into the boy in front of him and several of them giggled a little before moving on.
But as the children began to sing their worship songs I started to cry. I was not crying because of the beautiful experience that my son was now having with these other 350 children. I was crying because of a memory of something that had happened almost one year to the day before. On the very first day of school at my son’s old elementary I had broken up a fight between two second-graders that had started over nothing more than that. If you were raised in an environment where you’re taught that fighting is okay and that you should never let anyone mess with you, and on the first day of school a boy that you don’t know bumps into you from behind, then a legitimate response is to throw a hard elbow backwards letting them know that they should get off you. And that is exactly what happened. Before I realized it I was picking up two little boys and separating them.
Second graders are not supposed to be ready to fight, no children are. Children are supposed to feel safe, they are supposed to feel known and loved. It’s another example of the toxic stress that people living in poverty experience. The evidence is growing about the detrimental effects of low levels of stress over long periods of time. It breaks people down physically and even cognitively. It lowers their overall health.
So, I was not crying because of the beautiful scene in front of me where the children felt safe, where they felt loved. I was crying over the thought that right outside the door there were about 30,000 children that might never get to completely feel this way.
If I could share one more thought… Another part of the explanation about why there is so much violence in poverty is that conflict resolution, which is what is required to avoid violence, requires advanced language skills. It requires the ability to move the conversation from the concrete to the abstract, from the personal to the non-personal, or the idea. And many people who grow up in generational poverty never learn these advanced language skills.
Avoidance of violence also requires emotional stability, which we’ve already talked about. And that fact highlights the reality that many of these assets are interconnected and do not develop in isolation.
Relationships that can be counted on to provide help in times of need.
And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. -Hebrews 13:16
There is no such thing as a self-made man. Nobody makes it alone. There is no such thing as a stable adult that didn’t have help along the way.
One of the assets that the middle class relies upon the most is the support of others. When we have support it means that there are people that we can call upon in times of need. For a child, it means that there is someone, and hopefully multiple people, that helps with time, money, knowledge and advice. It means there is someone who supports your dreams and supports your efforts to reach those dreams. Support means there is someone there to help with homework. Support means there is someone to help you navigate those difficult situations in life that you don’t know how to work through. Support comes alongside you during the great transitions in life; as you leave home for the first time, as you go to college, as you become a parent, as you start a career, as you buy a home.
There were two girls who graduated from high school in 2009 that had been a part of Shepherd’s Junior Coach program at Jireh. That was a program where high school juniors and seniors worked teaching the littlest kids in the program. It was a leadership development program, a first paycheck. Both girls were raised by single mothers in the neighborhood. Both girls had older brothers that had been involved in the program. And both girls became the first members of their family to go to college. One girl went to a small private school in northern Indiana. The other girl went to Kentucky State, which you may recognize as an HBCU.
Both girls struggled to find their place during the first semester away and decided they wanted to quit. That’s a common experience. Whenever I ask a group of people in a room how many of them went to college and how many of them wanted to quit at some point in time just about every hand will go up. The girl at the school in northern Indiana called her mother one day and said, “Mom I hate it here. I want to come home.” That evening her mother got into her car, drove up to the school, packed up her stuff, and brought her home. The chance that she would ever go back to a four-year university dropped to about zero. And she never has.
The other girl, Bianca, didn’t call her mother and ask to be picked up. Instead, she said, “Mom, a friend of mine is driving to Chicago this weekend and they have to go through Indianapolis. They have a big car and I think I can get most of my stuff in it. They’ve agreed to drop me off. I hate it here. I’m coming home.” Her mother, Cheryl, paused for a moment and then said, “The hell you are! If anybody is driving anywhere this weekend it will be me driving down there so that on Monday morning I can hold your hand and walk you across campus to your class. If you don’t think I’ll do it, you just try me, young lady. I have been working two jobs for three years to be able to send you to college because you said you wanted to go. I spent months filling out FAFSA and application fee waivers. I’ve already paid your entire freshman year and I am now saving up for the second semester of your sophomore year.” (Her parental contribution was $1,800 per semester). “If you think you’re going to be welcome in this house your crazy?” As you might imagine, Bianca stayed in school.
That’s support. That’s someone who says, “I will whisper sweet words of encouragement in your ear. Or if that doesn’t work I will get that two-by-four over there and hit up upside the head so hard you will wake up next week. I will do whatever it takes. Because you need this. I know you need it. I know you need it more than you know you need it. And I know you can’t do it alone.”
As you read this I hope your mind jumps to thinking about the people who have helped you along the way. And I hope it’s a long list. I can think of countless people that have helped me. People like my parents’ best friends who have served as grandparents to my children because both my folks had passed away when they were born. They took on that role because they knew how valuable it was. And I think about the officer at a bank that gave me a car loan after I had been turned down elsewhere. He did it because he had known and respected my father. I needed that car to get to Boston and start seminary. The list could go on and on.
I often find myself in front of a group of people that are very successful in life. In that setting, there will always be a handful of guys that I like to refer to as “Self-made-men who worship their creator.” You know the guy, the one who talks about pulling himself up by his bootstraps. And when they tell me that I am usually able to dig a little deeper and challenge them. I’ll ask if anybody ever loaned them money to fix the transmission in their car, so they could get to that internship in California. Or did anyone help them pay for college? I remember one guy who admitted that his parents had paid for him to go to college but that he had really done it “all on my own.”
We live in a society with a cultural narrative that praises the maverick, the man or woman who makes it on their own. But nobody ever does. There is no such thing as a self-made man. Nobody makes it alone.
On a side note, when Bianca was getting ready to come home for her three-week Christmas break that year she was very excited. My wife is Facebook friends with Bianca and we were reading her posts. (This is back when 19-year-olds were still on FB). She was basically saying that she couldn’t wait to get home to see her high school friends and that she probably was not going back to school after Christmas. But by the end of that three weeks, my wife and I were beginning to worry about what her friends might do to her because her posts had completely changed. Now she was talking about how her high school friends were all losers and not doing anything with their lives. Two were in jail. Two were pregnant. They were all sitting around bored with nothing to do. And she concluded one post by saying, “I can’t wait to get back to Kentucky State.” Something had changed. But it was a change that never would have happened without the fierce support of her mother.
The ability to control your response to the circumstances of your environment, particularly negative circumstances.
Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The LORD, the LORD himself, is my strength and my defense. -Isaiah 12:2
When a person has emotional stability, it means they can control their response to conditions around them, particularly negative circumstances. A person with emotional stability demonstrates stamina and perseverance and an ability to make the right choice in stressful situations. And they don’t make the situation worse by engaging in self-destructive behavior.
When I say self-destructive behavior, your mind might immediately jump to certain actions. And the behaviors that come to mind are likely to be antisocial. Like for example, a man has a really bad day at work, maybe he gets accused of doing something he didn’t do. Instead of just brushing it off on the way home he stops by a bar or liquor store and gets drunk, maybe gets in a bar fight. Maybe he gets thrown in jail. Or maybe he goes home and is rough on the family, abuses others to make himself feel better. We can all think of teenagers who struggle to cope in the stressful society they live in today, so they engage in cutting or other things. These would be self-destructive behaviors that would also be called antisocial.
But there are other types of behavior that can be self-destructive, but we might not think of them as antisocial. I’m willing to bet you all know someone who during times of stress in their lives shuts down emotionally and becomes unproductive. My wife and I have a dear friend who changes jobs every couple of years because every time there’s any stress at her office or her boss yells at her about something she shuts down. Eventually, after a couple months of this, the tension grows and her productivity declines and she either voluntarily leaves the job or she’s fired. Most of the time she’s one of the most competent and pleasant people to be around and even when things are going wrong at work you would never know it. What she lacks is the emotional strength to get through those difficult times. She demonstrates behavior that is self-destructive, but no one would call it antisocial.
Someone who lacks emotional strength tends to turn a molehill into a mountain. In other words, their response often exacerbates the situation, makes it worse.
Someone with emotional assets is the kind of person who faces a mountain and sees a molehill. Not only can they remain calm and make good decisions, but they can also have a calming influence on those around them.
It’s easy to see how having emotional stability would contribute to long-term steadiness, which is one of the building blocks for breaking the cycle of poverty.
Not only abilities and acquired skills (reading, writing, computing, language, communication) but critical thinking skills that are the foundation of good decision making.
Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise. -Ephesians 5:15
Mental Acuity is about the obvious assets of being able to read, write, compute, effectively use language and to communicate. But it is more than that. Mental Acuity is about the ability to think critically. It is about effectively handling information. A person with Mental Acuity is able to judge whether something they are hearing or reading is important. They can accurately incorporate new information into their understanding of the world around them and they can dismiss information that is unimportant.
Mental Acuity is an acquired asset. I remember on one of the early seasons of the TV show Survivor there was a young man in the game who was the youngest contestant that had played up to that point. He was self-described “ghetto”. He was African-American from the Bronx and he played the game as hard as anyone ever had. Coincidentally one of the oldest contestants was also on the show. He was a retired university professor and the two of them really hit it off. And you could tell that it wasn’t just an alliance for the purposes of the game. There was a real affection between the two, much like a grandfather and grandson.
At one point the professor was speaking into the camera and talking about the young man. He referred to how smart he was but how he kept making mistakes like believing people when they were lying to him and thinking they were lying when they were telling the truth. He kept misreading situations and he didn’t have much understanding of how others think. Then the professor said something that stuck with me. He said that the reason he kept messing up despite his intelligence was that he lacked a formal education. The professor said, “Because a formal education is not about filling your head with information. It’s about teaching your brain to think in disciplined patterns.”
One of the great frustrations with public education today is that our legislative leaders have approached education as a process of simply filling a kid’s head with facts and figures and then putting a test in front of them and seeing how well they can spit that information back out. Any good teacher or youth leader knows that it is about so much more than that. My wife teaches 7th-grade language arts in a rural public school and constantly expresses her frustration that she has little to no time to teach her students how to think. And she started her teaching career at the Oaks Academy where she learned how important and effective that really is.
People with Mental Acuity are constantly asking themselves, “Is what I am hearing or reading consistent with my understanding of the world? Is it information that I need to incorporate into my worldview? Is it something I need to pay attention to?” They do it when they are sitting in church. They do it when they are listening to the news on the radio or TV. And they do it when they are reading something like this email.
When a person lacks the ability to determine the importance of information life presents far more challenges than for those who possess Mental Acuity.
Frequent access to stable adults, with whom you can personally identify (race, ethnicity, etc.), that model stability, planning, stamina, and perseverance.
Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. -1 Corinthians 11:1
We all need somebody to look up to. We all need examples in our lives to follow. And that’s what having appropriate models is all about. This might sound a little like the people that we count on for support, but this doesn’t have to be someone with whom we have an active relationship. Models are people that we have an opportunity to observe over time, people who demonstrate appropriate behavior. In the Scripture above it’s clear that the apostle Paul knew it wasn’t enough just to say “Be like Christ.” He understood that we all need somebody that we can see and whose example we can follow.
Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, said in one of his books that if any child, from any socioeconomic background, was going to become a stable adult they needed to have a minimum of seven role models in their childhood that demonstrate appropriate behavior and point them in the right direction. And he would go on to say that the child had to have the model in his or her life for more than a calendar year. That means it couldn’t even be a teacher unless the child had a relationship with the teacher beyond the nine months in their classroom.
My children’s favorite teacher was Nancy Westerman. She taught both in second grade. Mrs. Westerman was a godly woman and the first teacher to get involved with the new PTA that we started in their school. So occasionally I would have to stop by Mrs. Westerman’s classroom at the end of school to speak with her about something. Every time I did I would have to get in line behind a bunch of fifth and sixth graders who were stopping by to say hello their favorite teacher. She is somebody that I could point my daughter to and say, “be like her.”
It reminds me of one of the reasons that I like looking at economic class this way. Whenever I go through this list I’m reminded of how rich I am, and what a rich experience my children are having. We don’t have a lot of money, I can’t afford to buy them all the things that I would like. But they are rich.
Every Tuesday night for about 10 years, when my children were young, there would be a group of young adults who would come to our home for dinner. It was not a Bible study or small group. It was just a group of friends getting together for dinner. Sometimes we would spend the night in prayer if it was needed. But most nights we would just eat and play Euchre. These were all people who had come into our lives at different times mostly through a relationship with my wife. Some of them had been in crisis and we helped them work their way through that. But they stuck around and continued to come to our house on Tuesday nights for that dinner. There were six young women and three young men. And each of those women became an important part of my daughter’s life. They taught her different things. They had her over to their house or apartment for sleepovers. She’s been in a couple of their weddings and seen them go through that up close. And every one of those young women is somebody that I would point my daughter to and say, “Be like her.”
It’s important to note that we need this at every stage of our lives. Just because we are adults it doesn’t mean that we no longer need people to look up to. I’ve had the great pleasure throughout my adult life of being discipled by three different men all of whom were 15 to 20 years older than me. Each one of them was somebody that I had the opportunity to get to know and watch. And each one of them was somebody that after observing for a while I said to myself, “That’s what I’d like to be like when I’m their age.”
It’s very difficult to imagine yourself doing something or achieving something if you’ve never seen anyone else do it first.
It’s also important to note that these models must be somebody with whom we can identify. I am white, but I have lived most of my adult life in predominantly poor, minority communities. It would be foolish of me to believe that I can serve as a great role model for most of the kids in my neighborhood. There is a lot that I can do including mentoring a child. But most of the children I have known would have great difficulty mentally putting themselves in my shoes. Ultimately a child needs to have at least some models who look like they do, who come from a similar place. When they see somebody like that they can be inspired to follow.
Believing that you have the right to question authority and pursue your dreams.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. -Galatians 5:1
One of the primary beliefs of the middle-class is that you have the right to stand up for yourself. You have the right to pursue your dreams and if things get in your way, you do your best to navigate around those obstacles. You are taught to refuse to accept “no” for an answer. This means of course that you have the right to question authority.
You don’t have to go beyond the headlines today to understand that people in poverty have an entirely different relationship with authority than people in the middle-class do. A middle-class parent will teach their children that if they should ever get lost in a crowd and can’t find mom or dad then the first person they should look for is someone with a badge. Police officers are your friend. That is not true among those living in generational poverty, especially minorities.
On a sunny, summer day in a typical suburban sub-division when children are playing in the front yard and a police car drives by the children will usually wave. In my neighborhood of Martindale-Brightwood the kids will simply glare at the car as it drives by. No matter how nice the police officer is the children have learned to see it as an adversarial relationship.
It is not just in our relationship with police that the classes behave differently. There are many more subtle ways. Middle-class children don’t hesitate to ask their parents why there are certain rules and behaviors required. It is not considered disrespectful. It is a teaching opportunity. Parents take the time to explain things in detail. Many of my neighbors would consider it disrespectful if a child asked why. Children are expected to do what they’re told without question. And that doesn’t necessarily end at childhood.
When we decided to move to Martindale-Brightwood we were concerned about finding a house that would accommodate our dreams of family, in addition to the fact that we always seemed to have people living with us. The houses in the neighborhood are very small on average. But we found out that the CDC in the area was building new homes on Ralston Avenue, which happened to be the street where we found the old warehouse that became Jireh Sports.
We went to the CDC and asked if we could build a home there. We found out that to qualify you had to be a first-time homeowner and you had to be under a certain income level. We had never owned a home before and I was working for a very frugal church. So we moved forward and chose the biggest of the five floorplans that they offered, which still wasn’t very big, only 1,100 sq/ft. I knew that the cheapest way to add space to new construction was with an unfinished basement, which I could finish off myself later. So we told them we would like to have a basement. The woman that we were talking to said that they had a policy of no basements. Naturally, Stacy and I both asked why. She didn’t really know.
At our next meeting she told us that the Executive Director and the Board also did not know why they had that policy. So they had decided to let us have a basement, which we were very excited about. A few months later I was on my way to Jireh one morning when I saw that the day before the contractor had poured the foundation to our new home. I stopped and got out to admire my new walls. As I was standing there imagining where things would go a man walked up to me. It turns out he was the guy who had built the house four lots up from us. He was an older, distinguished looking gentleman, probably around the mid to late sixties (remember, first-time home-owner, low income). I stuck out my hand to introduce myself and, to my surprise, he didn’t take it. Instead, he just crossed his arms and stared at my basement. After a brief pause he said, “They told me I couldn’t have a basement! How’d you get a basement?” Needless to say, I was immediately uncomfortable. But I told the truth and said, “Yeah, they told us that too. But when we asked why not they didn’t have a good answer. So, they let us have a basement.” The man stepped back, looked me up and down, shook his head, and said with an air of disgust, “White People!” He turned and walked away.
I tell that story to kids all the time and warn them not to make the mistake that he did. He attributed my behavior to the color of my skin. My behavior was due to the fact that I was raised middle-class. Any middle-class black person I know would have asked the same question I did. And they would have likely gotten their basement.
But if a white person who lived his whole life either low-income or in poverty was told there was a no basement policy they would probably accept that at face value and not push the issue.
Theologians will probably take issue with my use of this scripture but in Luke 18 our Lord tells a parable of a widow who received justice from an uncaring judge because of her persistence. Middle-class parents teach their children to do the same.
Knowledge of the often-unspoken rules of mainstream culture, how systems and organizations function, and how to get things done.
I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. -Matthew 10:16
If you grow up middle-class you likely have the benefit of never having to learn a new way to behave. That’s because the rules that governed behavior in your household were pretty much the same rules that governed behavior in your school and now in your workplace.
We have a lot of rules in our society. We have rules about everything. We have rules based on class, but also things like race, and religion and even region of the country. Have you ever been to a new church and at some point during the service everyone stood up and you didn’t know you were supposed to? Then they all sat down on some unnoticed cue. Or maybe when they all started doing The Lord’s Prayer you hesitated in the middle to figure out if they were going to say “debts” or “trespasses”?
We don’t talk about the rules much, they are just sort of known by everyone in the group. About the only time we talk about them is when we see someone break them. That’s when we turn to one another and say, “Did you see that?” But we don’t tell the offender. We just file the offense away in our minds.
The way you know you’ve broken a rule is with a look. A friend of mine calls it the raised-eyebrow look. That look is full of judgment. It is a destroyer of relationships. Because nothing destroys relationships faster than judgment.
But if you grew up in generational poverty then you likely had to learn a whole new set of rules to be successful in school or at work. This can be a challenge to children as they move from home to school. If you’ve been taught that you should never let anyone mess with you and that it’s okay to fight, and you bring that rule into school with you, then you are going to struggle. Or if you come from an environment where there are no prohibitions on your language and you start cursing at school you are going to struggle. And it might take a while before you’re even ready to learn in that foreign environment. By that point, the gap between you and your middle-class contemporaries that already existed on the first day of school will have grown into a chasm that will be almost impossible to overcome.
With the knowledge of dominant culture comes an understanding of how things work and how to maneuver within systems to accomplish things.
I teach on a regular basis at a for-profit company with a strong sense of mission. When I started sharing there years ago they had about 300 people on staff. My first time there I asked a group of about 30 employees, “Who’s the most important person to know in this organization if you want to get something done?” They almost all pointed to a woman who was sitting up front to my left. It was not a surprise to find out she was the Administrative Assistant to the CEO. Why would she be the most important person to know? Well, she’s the gatekeeper. She knows more about what’s going on than anyone, including her boss. They teach you in fundraising school that you should get to know her because if you can get her behind your organization you can get the whole company.
I’ve only had one job where I ever had an assistant. And she had a sign on her desk that said, “Do you want to speak to the man in charge, or to the woman who knows what’s going on?” The Assistant to the CEO is the woman that knows what’s going on. But if you’ve never been in that environment you wouldn’t know this.
Middle-class parents teach their children how to maneuver through life. They coach their children how to speak to adults. And they sit back and let the kids try it themselves. You hear things like, “So, what are you going to say to the doctor?” “Did you ask the teacher for help?” “How do you think you can solve that problem?” “Did you ask if you could speak to the supervisor?”
Years ago, a young man at Jireh was pursuing a special scholarship to college that had been designed for children who had once been in foster care. One morning he showed up at the door and asked if he could speak with Miss Vicki, who was our gymnastics director. He said that he needed her to write a letter of recommendation for the scholarship. I knew that his application was due that very day, so I told him that lesson number one was that he shouldn’t wait until the last minute. Lesson number two was that he needed his letters to be from people who knew him in different settings. Since I had already written him a letter a second recommendation from Jireh wouldn’t really help.
As we talked I found out that a former teacher at Tech had agreed to write the letter. He had called the school that day and was told that she was out sick. When he asked for her home phone number or her cell phone they had refused to give it to him. By the time he came to me he had looked in the phone book and searched everywhere he could to get her number but to no avail. He could not understand why the school would have a policy of not giving out home addresses or phone numbers.
So, to save time I went straight to telling him what to do. I told him to call the school back and ask them for help. He should tell them who he was and why he needed to speak to the teacher. He had won a state championship for them, so I knew they would remember him. Then I told him to politely ask them if they would call the teacher and give his phone number to her. Not surprisingly, twenty minutes later the teacher called and we drove to her house and got the letter. It had seemed to me to be an easy problem to solve. But as I looked at his face I realized that he had no idea how to get it done.
I tell that story often but before I get to the punch line I ask people what advice they would give to the young man. There has never been a time when somebody didn’t quickly come up with the same instructions I did. And they don’t really have to spend too much time thinking about it. If you’ve lived in that environment, then you know how to get things done.
An attitude that focuses on long-term goals, which leads to planning, life-long learning and perseverance. This orientation is manifested in the ability to articulate a Future Story.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." -Jeremiah 29:11
One of the primary differentiators between the middle class and those living in generational poverty is how much time they spend time thinking about the future. Most of those living in generational poverty spend their lives in survival mode, just trying to get to the end of the day having met the basic needs of that day. It is what those in business refer to as the Tyranny of the Urgent.
Have you ever gotten to the end of the day and thought to yourself, “Man, I was really busy today, but I’m not really sure what I accomplished”? Chances are that you experienced the Tyranny of the Urgent. On that day the needs which were immediate took precedent over the things that were important. Well, imagine living your whole life that way, just trying to get to the end of the day, never having a chance to focus on tomorrow.
Someone with a future orientation can articulate a Future Story. A Future Story is simply the answer to the question, “where are you going to be in five years?”
Let’s say you had the opportunity to interview ten seniors in high school that were growing up middle class and attending a school with an affluent student body. If you were to ask them that question the answers you received would be very telling about the way they think about themselves. And the answers you would get would go something like this:
“I will be in my first year of grad school.”
“I will have my first job after college.”
“I will be back here working for my mom/dad getting ready to take over the business.”
“I took a gap-year so I will be a senior in college.”
“I will be married.”
“I will own my own home.”
The common denominator among their answers is the first two words of those sentences, “I will.” They live with a fundamental belief that this is what is going to happen. That’s a Future Story.
Let’s say you then went and interviewed ten seniors growing up in generational poverty attending a lower income school. If you were to ask them the same question the answers would likely be very different:
“I don’t know.”
“I’m thinking about the Army.”
“I’d like to be an accountant.”
“I don’t really think about it.”
“I’d like to go to college.”
“I’ll probably be in jail.”
These likely answers reflect the fundamental belief that it’s not really up to me. “I don’t really have the power or the control to make my future something great.” “No matter how hard I try something is going to stop me.”
A Future Story is what drives people forward. It is what we plan our lives around and the vision against which we make most of the major decisions. Without a Future Story there is no hope. And without hope life is very hard.
The money to provide basic needs such as housing, food, and healthcare.
This asset doesn’t need much explanation. Most people immediately see the importance of income. It is the first thing that comes to mind.
But it is important to note why this is last on our list. There are several reasons. The first is that raising income is not the focus of Shepherd’s effort. Shepherd emphasizes empowering families to develop more and more of the first nine assets. If you give money to a family in poverty, and they don’t possess many of the other assets, it will simply be a crisis intervention and will not help them in the long run. If you give a family in poverty a home, and they don’t possess many of the other assets, they will eventually lose that home. If you give a person in generational poverty a job, and they don’t possess many of the other assets, they will struggle to keep that job.
The second reason is that money usually follows the development of the other assets. The more and more assets a family possesses the more stable their lives are. And economic class is really all about stability. Children in the middle-class can be future-oriented, hopeful people who pursue their dreams because all of today’s needs are met. They don’t have to worry about where they’re going to sleep, what they’re going to eat or how they’re going to get to school. But if every day is chaos and a struggle to survive then you don’t have the privilege of thinking about tomorrow.
The first nine assets are about stability. At Shepherd, our goal is not upward-mobility. Our goal is upward-stability. This is the idea that your life is more stable today than it was two years ago. And it is on track to be more stable two years from now than it is today. If we can come alongside our families and empower them to develop these first nine assets, then their children can begin to dream their own future story. And the cycle of poverty can be broken.