Shattering Poverty Stereotypes

Recently on This American Life, I heard the story of Emir, a Bosnian refugee, who fled his war-torn country to the United States as a child. With the help of an exceptional teacher who championed his potential, Emir went from living in poverty to studying at Harvard, eventually becoming a professor.

We love success stories like Emir’s, or like the film The Blind Side, the story about NFL football player Michael Oher, who owes much of his success to a family who took him in when he had no one. There’s just something so irresistible about seeing the underdog flourish.

But though these stories are popular, they’re not nearly as recurring as the stereotypes. These ideas that we have of people who haven’t tried hard enough to pull themselves out of a bad situation, or worse yet, who have chosen to be there: criminals, addicts, alcoholics. These lost souls who are crazy and/or lazy, who are on welfare instead of working. In short: they’re not successful because it’s their own damn fault.

But what if there’s more to the story than this success/failure binary?

I could tell you countless stories of the people I’ve met who live in poverty and rely on the help provided by government programs and social agencies like the one I work for. But what might surprise you is that though I haven’t met any Michael Oher’s, I haven’t met any lazy people either.

On the contrary, I have met hundreds of resilient, hardworking people who wake up every morning in tents by the river, or in run-down, over-crowded rooming houses, or even in apartment buildings like yours all over the city. People who do the best they can with what they have in order to survive another day.

Like kind, quiet, helpful James, whose marriage fell apart when he got hurt on the job and couldn’t work anymore. He now survives on the little money he has left after he pays child support. James lives well below the poverty line.

Or Hank, a gentle but hardened 50-something who works in the trades, who I suspect has undiagnosed autism. He loses jobs often because of his sensitivity to noise; his young colleagues often like to blast music while they work, and he just can’t handle it. He sleeps in a shelter, on a mat on the floor, with no blankets. Yet every day, he gets up and tries again to find a job he can do.

Some of the people I’ve met haven’t had the opportunity to go to school or they haven’t grown up with parents who have taught them social skills. This often translates into spending hours digging through trash bins looking for empty bottles to recycle or for things they can re-sell. Or it means lining up at a temporary labour organization at 6 a.m. to see if they can get work for the day. Those who do this usually make little more than minimum wage after the agency takes a cut.

For many other people, after years of working, they wake up and are unable to work because of an illness or a workplace injury.

They crave purpose, but are unable to fit into conventional workplace requirements.

These are just pieces of the story and these pieces will never add up to “success” in the way that society deems best.

Maybe there’s a lot more to achieving success than hard work. Maybe gender, race, and your position in the social hierarchy have something to do with it. And maybe the most important part of success comes down to someone taking a chance on someone else.

Take stories like Emir’s or Michael Oher’s. Sure, they both had talent and worked hard, but each of them had someone who believed in them, someone who went out of their way for no reason at all.

Maybe we actually owe it to those who are living in poverty, to those who are considered “unsuccessful,” to not only see beyond the imperfections and stereotypes, but to invite them into our lives. To mutually engage in the messiness of another’s experience, offering the dignity of a life shared.

Even if someone’s economic or health situation never changes, this belief in someone who has lost all hope for themselves, will make room for confidence, self-respect, and the recognition that they are worthy of love. This is true success, for everyone involved.

Originally published in Issue 20 of Converge Magazine.

Photo (Flickr CC) by Jerome Olivier