In Bennington’s two largest elementary schools, more than 70 percent of the children come from families that are poor enough that the children are eligible for free- or reduced-cost lunches. That’s a big jump from 20 years ago when 50 percent of children in two of four school schools needed food assistance.
The poverty rate in Bennington’s core is higher than the state and national average. The poverty in our community and around the nation is complicated and pervasive. While it might not be permanent for any individual or family, it is a permanent condition in our society. We all know people who have grown up in poverty yet have made a successful life for themselves; and we all know those who have not.
When we look at poverty in theory, we talk numbers and symptoms. We can count the number of people whose income doesn’t cover the cost of rent and food. We can count school failure, malnutrition, crime, illiteracy, and unemployment. It is harder to fathom what it means for people who are living in poverty and struggling daily with being poor.
We tend to lump "the poor" together. That doesn’t help with solutions. There are those people who, because of the loss of jobs simply don’t have enough money to get along. That means not enough food on the table, inadequate winter clothing, health care only in emergencies and inadequate housing.
But there are other kinds of people living in poverty. These include people who have a range of physical and emotional disabilities including mental illness, developmental disability, blindness, birth defects, injuries caused by accidents and severe chronic illness. The poor also include those families where parents have deep-seated mental health, addiction and behavior issues. Children growing up in those families may be subject to abuse and neglect. Their parents often can’t provide positive examples of the kinds of behavior which will help children thrive. Teachers and youth organizations can help those children, but they can’t do the full job.
There are three conceivable approaches to poverty.
1. Blame the poor and tell them that the only reason they are poor is because they haven’t done what it takes to get out of poverty.
2. Make sure people living in poverty are not homeless, are not starving and are not freezing. But, other than that, follow No. 1 above. This means we’re kind-hearted enough to not want people to die because of poverty, but it also means we don’t think it’s worth it to try to change the nature of poverty.
3. The third is to try to help individuals move up the social ladder through education, health and social services. Although some people are not going to change much -- or can’t change much -- our society benefits when those can move out of poverty do so.
Our national and state governments and local schools try to carry out No. 3 above. We might unfairly burden the schools with our expectation that they solve all of our children’s problems. In order to ensure that children benefit from educational programs, our schools provide health screenings, meals, social services, remedial education programs and alternative programs. Teachers work hard to reach out to children who need emotional and extra educational support. Targeted groups, such as potential dropouts, benefit from programs such as the high school’s Twilight program with its mix of hands-on trade education and the required academic work needed for students to graduate from high school.
The federal and state governments have developed programs to provide job training, re-training, mental health and addiction treatment, vocational rehabilitation, housing stabilization and other programs to help address the most prevalent barriers to moving out of poverty. Just as one example, Sunrise Family Resource Center receives funds to help young high-school age mothers earn a high school diploma.
What else can our community do to help change the poverty profile in Bennington? Is there a role for area employers? Can retailers help? What can we do as individuals? How do we make sure that those individuals who can and want to work are able to do so?
A starting point is to recognize that many of the challenges that keep people impoverished can be addressed and that for most people in poverty it is not a matter of moral failure or laziness than the roulette wheel of life. People living in poverty, and particularly their children, should never be written off as a lost cause.
Any progress we make with individuals living in poverty will benefit our entire community.
Charles R. Putney is a consultant to nonprofit organizations. He lives in Bennington.