Institute helps participants understand poverty

By Enedelia J. Obregón
Senior Correspondent

First, I “borrowed” some toilet paper from my work place. Then I “borrowed” a bar of soap. I really needed them but couldn’t figure out how to buy them after trying to pay $3,317 worth of bills with a monthly income of $1,307.
No matter how I shuffled around the play money in this exercise on poverty, I came up extremely short. My imaginary small children required diapers and day care so I could continue working at the imaginary small company, which offered health insurance that I could not afford. I kept money for gasoline but let the car insurance lapse. I was about to have my electricity and water shut off. I paid part of the water bill. Since I had no money for food, I needed to find time to get to a food pantry.
The exercise, which left me exhausted and extremely stressed, was to remind those in attendance of the struggles faced daily by the 46.7 million people who live in the war zone of poverty.
“War zone” is what Donna M. Beegle calls poverty. “Bullets” is what she calls the daily events that make it hard to survive. To give people who are not poor a tiny taste of poverty, she designed the Poverty Institute, which she presented to the regional Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVdP).
The presentation was an eye-opener for four members of the SVdP conference from Santa Rosa de Lima Parish in Andice. Rita Molina-Rymer and her husband, George, attended with Steve Schlobohm and Mary Cardinal.
“She’s hitting on what a lot of people grow up with,” Molina-Rymer said.
“We need to recognize the perceptions of people we work with,” Schlobohm said. “We need to understand that.”
Cardinal said we keep trying to find a simple solution to a complex problem.
“There is no simple solution,” she said. “If we try that then we just create more problems.”
Cardinal recognized that in order to help people in need, we need to become avid listeners.
“You can’t understand something you haven’t experienced,” she said. “To be avid listeners is time consuming. We have limited time and we often don’t have time to build real relationships.”
Yet that’s what’s needed. In her presentation, Beegle shared her intimate knowledge of poverty. She comes from generations of poverty. She dropped out of school at 15 and got married. She divorced at 25. She gave birth to six children; two survived into adulthood. As a child, her life was filled with eviction notices, hunger pangs and living in cars. She has no baby pictures of herself. 
“I thought that was normal, that everybody lived that way,” said Beegle, who is now married and has a doctorate in educational leadership. She travels the world speaking about poverty. She also has written several books on the issue, including “See Poverty ... Be the Difference.”
How did she manage to break the cycle of poverty? With a lot of help –– including St. Vincent de Paul –– and her recognition that those who are poor and middle class people speak different languages. She began learning how to decipher that language at 26 in a pilot program in her home state of Oregon that offered a holistic approach to helping people get out of poverty. At 28, she enrolled at the University of Portland.
Beegle uses her expertise in communications to get middle-class people to understand the language of those who are poor. 
Even those trying to help people in poverty get frustrated at the people they are trying to help. They wonder why “they just don’t listen” to advice from middle-class, educated people who “know better.”
“What you say doesn’t make sense to them,” she said. “And what people who are in poverty do does not make sense to us.” Yet we do not give people in poverty enough credit for surviving day to day. Middle class people also assume that people who are poor share the same knowledge and life experiences.
Examples: Just go to this website and fill out the electronic form, but there’s no computer at home and maybe not even electricity. Why buy beer? It’s often a substitute for mental health care. Why are so many kids in poverty overweight? It’s cheaper to buy a large bag of potatoes or pasta than green vegetables.
When Beegle dropped out of school, her teacher told her she needed to graduate so she could get a good job.
“But I’d been working all my life,” Beegle said. “It didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t know that you could get a job that didn’t require working with your hands.” 
“Bullets” of poverty can also kill. The high stress, lack of medical care and mental care means they die at younger ages and from treatable illnesses and end up in jail more often because they can’t afford bail.
While the U.S. does not have a traditional class system, we are segregated by social class, she noted. 
Beegle said that programs designed to help struggling families have also become punitive and strayed far from their original focus.
“Did you know that welfare was designed to keep a parent at home so we wouldn’t have latchkey kids?” she said. Today, parents are both forced to work. Too often, the cost of child care eats away at attempts to get out of poverty. 
The federal guidelines that determined who is in poverty haven’t changed since they were established in 1966. For a family of four, that’s $24,250.
“How many of you are still paying 1966 prices?” she asked. 
Beegle explained there are different types of poverty.
Generational poverty is the worst. The life outlook tends to be “life happens to me and I have no control over it.” They tend to rent, are basically illiterate and focus on surviving one day at a time. Society sees this type of poverty as a personal deficiency.
Working class poverty includes people who have some control over their lives, but not much. People are squeaking by paycheck to paycheck.
Immigrant poverty has language and cultural barriers. They are better able to get out of poverty because they have hope they will make a better life. Beegle said children of immigrants who do not get out of poverty after a generation tend to stay in poverty.
Situational poverty is caused by a crisis that knocks people off their feet, but they have the resources or knowledge to get back up. These are often seen as the “worthy poor,” since their poverty was caused by an outside force.
Beegle speaks out about poverty because to help policy makers and those who serve people better understand it.
“Dr. Martin Luther King said that if we don’t talk about racism we won’t do anything about it,” she said. “It’s the same with poverty.”
For information on The Poverty Institute, go to