Poverty is Not a State of Mind, but Compassion Is

June 23, 2017

More than one out of every four Philadelphians is poor, very poor.  So when Dr. Ben Carson, head of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, says that “I think poverty to a large extent is also a state of mind,” he is accusing hundreds of thousands of our neighbors (including many of our children) of simply lacking the willpower to improve their situations.  He went on to say, “You take somebody with the wrong mind set, you can give them everything in the world – they’ll work their way right back down to the bottom.”  His characterization essentially challenges the base philosophy of all anti-poverty policies and efforts – even those that have proven effective – of the last seventy years.  And this view is not confined to Dr. Carson.  It is the organizing ideology behind President Trump’s budget proposal, which would cut over $2.5 trillion from programs aimed at assisting low- and moderate-income Americans over the next decade.  After all, why offer assistance to people who just need a new mind set?

This viewpoint could not be more misguided.  At Broad Street Ministry, we open our doors seven times a week to our community’s most vulnerable sisters and brothers, those suffering from deep poverty, hunger and homelessness, and those wrestling with addiction or mental illness.  If our elected and appointed leaders spent some time with our guests, they would come to understand that they are by and large a group of kind, thoughtful, creative, industrious and hopeful people who quite simply have had bad things happen in their lives.

A significant number of our guests are employed but unable to make ends meet. Experts suggest that to live sustainably, families should budget no more than 30% of their incomes to housing.  The average housing outlay for those living in poverty in Philadelphia, however, is 70% of income (and two-thirds of these families receive absolutely no housing assistance – federal, state or local).  This means we have hundreds of thousands of hard-working Philadelphians who are really just one bad break away from becoming homeless. The twist of fate that knocks them off the cliff could be losing their job; it could stem from domestic abuse; it could be a catastrophic diagnosis, particularly for the uninsured; or it could be any other of a range of unexpected bad outcomes. Comments like Dr. Carson’s imply that limiting access to benefits is necessary to change a “mind set” of people that prefer to accept benefits rather than work.  But the proposals to gut benefits programs or reduce access to affordable health care will do nothing to encourage these people to work.  Removing benefits will only mean that thousands more hard working families will fall through the gaps in our social safety net.

We also know that over half of the 7,500 guests we hosted last year have serious mental health concerns.  Unlike more fortunate neighbors, they remain untreated mostly because they lack social support networks that might otherwise help them to remain in society.  As a result, far too many of our poor and mentally ill face an unending revolving door between the streets and jail.  It is an indictment of our community’s values that the largest mental health institution in the city is the county jail system, and that the incarcerated mentally ill will on average return to jail or prison 10 times over their lifetimes.  The tough love policies being advocated in Washington will not reverse our guests’ mental illness, but it may relegate them to a permanent underclass in our society.

Over 60% of our guests have some sort of criminal record, which is not surprising considering that one-third of those coming out of jail expect to be homeless at the time of release, even though they had not been homeless when incarcerated.  What such re-entrants want more than anything is a job, but getting hired with a criminal record remains by far their biggest challenge in trying to rejoin society.  Even with the Fair Hiring Law passed by the city, people with criminal records still face discrimination from employers, and frustration with the inability to earn a living wage is often cited as a major contributor to recidivism. At some point, we need to break the cycle.  Reducing funding for job training and workforce development programs, as is being proposed, will only make these people climb a steeper hill to return to society.

Finally, what about the 60% of our guests that are wrestling with substance abuse?  National research tells us that 1 out of 10 Americans is living with addiction, and it only stands to reason that a significant portion of them end up on the streets.  These numbers are also likely lagging, because the number of seriously addicted Americans is spiking upwards due to the opioid epidemic.  There are over 30,000 heroin and opioid addicts in Philadelphia today, and last year we lost over 900 of them to overdose, 35 in one week alone.  And this crisis crosses demographic and social lines, largely because 80% of the heroin and other opioid addicts in the city began their addiction with prescription medicine. These addicts were once doctors, lawyers, contractors, teachers and high school students who never dreamed they would find themselves roaming the drug markets in Kensington.  They are not the “other,” they are our neighbors and friends.  In the face of this explosive epidemic, reducing government support for drug treatment centers is not only tragic, but counter-productive if we are trying to encourage self-sufficiency.

Respectfully, before condemning those living in poverty as not having the proper “mental state” to succeed, our leaders should recognize that over one-third of Americans at some point in their lives will find themselves below the poverty line.  Regardless of the reason, rarely, if ever, will it be because they simply lacked the grit required to succeed.  These are good people.  They are our brothers and sisters, and they do not deserve scorn. Instead they deserve our compassion and generosity, characteristics that have defined Americans across the political spectrum for generations.

Written by:

Mike Dahl

Executive Director of Broad Street Ministry