Understanding the complexities of poverty
By John Berry, Chief Executive Officer, St. Vincent de Paul Georgia
As we consider poverty and equity in our state, region, and country, we no doubt begin with the numbers and statistics to gain insight into the problem. In Georgia, more than 1.8 million people live in poverty, 1 in 4 children live in food insecure homes, and nearly 9% of elderly people live in below the poverty line. The statistics demonstrate a deep need, but they don’t paint a full portrait of the lives of those experiencing poverty. The numbers do not bring us closer to understanding the children, families, and individuals who are struggling every day.
In response to this disconnect, the Stanford Center for Poverty and Inequality has partnered with Johns Hopkins University, Western University in Canada, and the American Institute for Research to develop the North American Poverty Study (NAPS). NAPS’ purpose is to enrich the portrait of the individuals and communities who live in the crisis of poverty day in and day out. The qualitative focused studies will move beyond just counting the number of people in poverty and shed light on how they live these realities. Interviews with participants will focus on how poverty shapes various components of life, including lifespan, milestone events, friendships and family relationships, employment, economic hardship, and mental health. The depth of these interviews will offer a fuller and more complex portrait of the ways poverty shapes daily realities.
Another important quality of the study is the division of groups into three categories: extreme poverty, middle poverty, and near poverty. While anecdotal evidence shows us that the experiences of these populations is very different, the study’s focus will give a fuller understanding of the experience of poverty for each subset.
St. Vincent de Paul’s unique method for delivering services to our clients, the home visit, sends volunteers and caseworkers into the homes of people in need. Through these more intimate encounters we gain a deeper understanding of the struggles and triumphs of those we serve. These encounters both deepen knowledge of poverty and strengthen empathy for those who live with it every day.
Creating real solutions to poverty requires a large-scale understanding of what living in poverty feels and looks like. Shedding light on the complexity of the related issues and shaping the larger cultural narrative is critical for enacting real change. This combination of quantitative and qualitative data that paints a portrait of the lives of millions of Americans who are often misunderstood, or worse, forgotten is an essential. Without truly understanding the complexity of the need, public policies and service delivery models will always fall short.