Changing the Poverty Narrative

“Industry” (detail) 1934. Painting by Arthur Durston. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Transfer from the U.S. Department of Labor.

by Dan Carpenter

A leading voice in the movement to short-circuit chronic poverty is bringing her ideas to a city and state with greater proportions of poor people than most of the nation—a nation that the Census Bureau recently found to have reached its highest level of income inequality in more than half a century.

Nisha G. Patel looks at what leaders in Washington, D.C., and red states are doing to negate her work, and does not despair. “In more than 20 years in this field, I can say that, almost always, I see that the most optimistic, most energizing, most hopeful signs are at the community level,” said the D.C.-based consultant, former executive with numerous philanthropic organizations, and former Obama administration official. “The Head Start teacher, the food pantry volunteer, the job trainer, the health center worker. And what we’re seeing now is the intersection of those things.”

Patel will be the keynote speaker at the April 30 Spring Conference of the Faith & Action Program at Christian Theological Seminary, a four-year-old initiative aimed at raising the status of low-income communities and individuals by tapping into their inherent resources, from churches that shepherd small businesses to grandparents who tutor neighborhood children.

Supported by the Mike and Sue Smith Family Fund and the Lumina Foundation, the project has awarded grants annually to grassroots organizations nurturing self-help. Last July, a total of $115,000 went to Public Advocates in Community Re-Entry (PACE), serving ex-prisoners; Purposeful Design, which centers job preparation around furniture-making and faith; Believers United In Local Development (BUILD), a multi-agency job training initiative for the construction industry; and Near East Area Renewal (NEAR) and Shepherd Community Center, for creation of a living and learning facility to be shared by senior citizens and children.

For Patel, those block-by-block counter-offensives to entrenched negative forces have been the subject of major-league study and support. She was executive director of the U.S. Partnership on Mobility from Poverty at the Urban Institute, a recently concluded venture sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that joined prominent academic experts with operators of real-life community-level projects to identify what works to break the bonds, not just loosen them.

“We found something that resonates with different audiences and different political points of view,” she said, “and that is that poverty is not just about lack of money. Now, that’s not to say, ‘You’re poor but you’re happy and that’s fine.’ But money alone is not enough to bring about mobility from poverty.”

Three principles apply, she said. First, there must be enough money on hand to secure an economic footing. Second, there must be what’s called agency—“the autonomy and power to have a say in the trajectory of your life and that of your community.” If you secure a job, for example, what are your options should you show up one day and find the business padlocked? Finally, there is a sense of belonging, of being treated as important to the overall economy as well as one’s family. “We tend to ‘other’ people—‘other’ as a verb—who are unlike us,” she said. “Empathy is missing.”

Nor is empathy a matter of charity on the part of well-off people and their elected representatives. Take, for example, the slashing of welfare benefits that began with the Clinton administration-backed “workfare” legislation and engaged Patel in a continuous uphill battle as director of the Office of Family Assistance under President Obama.

“If you don’t care about kids, maybe you care about the economy and the nation’s competitiveness. The fate of those is directly tied to the cutting off of basic services to children. The same is true of Medicaid,” she said, referring to Republican discussions about converting the low-income healthcare program to a block grant system. Conversion of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (“welfare”) to a block grant system resulted in massive benefit reductions in conservative states, including Indiana.

It is ignorance, and plain neglect, of government’s culpability in income inequality that demands a change in “narrative” about poverty, Patel asserted. Data and firsthand experience, she said, refute the popular myths that people are poor because they deserve to be and that taxpayer dollars have been overspent on, and ineffective against, poverty. “Lack of access to the American dream” is a genuine problem for non-poor and poor alike, with practical solutions that don’t allow for “othering,” she added.

Patel took both the scholarly and sidewalk paths to her eminence as a consultant and speaker. The granddaughter of ethnic Indian refugees from Idi Amin’s Uganda in the 1970s, she grew up with a consciousness of the fragility of circumstances even for educated families. While studying for her master’s degree in social work at Washington University in St. Louis, she volunteered with a welfare rights group that lobbied the state legislature, shoulder to shoulder with recipients.

“It was a very powerful formative experience,” Patel said. “It stays with me today. It’s crazy to think you can make policy without involving the people who are going to live with it.”

Dan Carpenter is an Indianapolis native, longtime Midtown resident, a survivor of 36 years at The Indianapolis Star, and the author of four books.