Poverty and Family Values

May 23, 2011 § 2 Comments

If you’ve ever faced poverty or experienced low income you know that these conditions can create dramatic and painful questions like, “Should I buy food or medicine?” People unfamiliar with the experience of poverty may ask themselves why poor people don’t put more emphasis on earning money to avoid those choices.  Some even suggest that poverty is a problem of values and poor choices.

For insight, turn to sociologist Jennnifer Sherman’s account of interviews with members of an economically shattered mountain community published in her  paper, “Family Values, Rural Poverty, and the Moral Boundaries of ‘Tradition'” and in her book, Those Who Work And Those Who Don’t.  Her work was inspired by a curiosity about why family values figured so strongly in recent national elections but her findings have greater application. They tell us that the constant stress of inadequate money and reactive consequences  (ie: drug use, depression, violence) shift the way members of that community view their priorities.

Middle class whites, Sherman writes, make “sure their children have all the advantages necessary to get ahead” but parents in this poor community, “focus their energies on making sure that their children, and any others in need, are provided the very basics. Oftentimes this does not even mean sufficient food, but simply an abuse-free environment in which to sleep at night and parental figures who will support them in their endeavors.”  In the context of severe economic stress family and tradition are  “…one area left in which its citizens can define themselves and their community as a success story.” 

Sherman’s work  focuses on a unique, mostly white,  rural community but is there a similar effect in diverse urban communities stressed with poverty? How does stress in an urban community affect the choices people make? Do the polarizing either/or “choices” of poverty sometimes influence community members to elevate altruistic values over the pursuit of money? Are choices poor choices when they’re made to give children the best life possible?

Solving poverty is hard but, as a country, we can make progress by simply learning more about economic classes we’re unfamiliar with and suspending our judgements. Encourage others to stop problematizing people in poverty and focus, instead, on problematizing our tolerance of communities and families facing dire financial decisions.

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§ 2 Responses to Poverty and Family Values

  • […] Jennifer Sherman’s research indicates that financially stressed communities do experience a shift in priorities with more focus on family and community. Add to that the fact that low income earners tend to be larger charitable donors (as a percent of income) then their upper class neighbors. Now financial publications are referencing  new psychological research from U Cal that suggests income does make a difference in our ability to be empathic and compassionate with others.  […]

  • […] these communities. What we give isn’t just in the form of money, as Jennifer Sherman finds in her study of an economically devastated mountain community,  but the money we give, proportionate to our […]

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