Are Situational and Generational Poverty Useful Categories?

A lot of popular writers on poverty make a distinction between situational poverty and generational poverty. According to these writers, situational poverty is poverty caused by a particular chance in their circumstances: a lost job, an unexpected medical bill, and so on. Generational poverty, meanwhile, is the poverty that exists when a single family has lived in (or been born into) poverty for at least two generations.

But, while this distinction between situational and generational poverty is popular, is it useful?

I don’t know the answer to that. But as I’ve thought about it more, I’ve grown skeptical. Here are three reasons why.

These Categories Leave People Out

If we took everyone who is living in situational poverty and everyone who is living in generational poverty, we would still have some people living in poverty who aren’t included in either group. For example, someone who has lived in poverty for twenty years doesn’t strike me as ‘situationally’ poor; but if they aren’t in the second generation of their family’s poverty, they aren’t generationally poor. Similarly, someone who is in the first generation of longterm familial poverty isn’t considered generationally poor. There is a gap here that this distinction doesn’t account for.

That wouldn’t be a problem if these were two categories in a larger and more comprehensive system. But they are asked to stand on their own, leaving some people in poverty unaccounted for. One problem with this is that it keeps us from accounting for a family becoming generationally poor. Without looking at people who aren’t situationally poor, but who aren’t yet part of families that are generationally poor, we can’t look at the transition into generational poverty.

These Categories Have Too Much Internal Variety

Related to the first, point, there is a lot of internal variety within situational and generational poverty. Someone who has lived in poverty for three months and someone who has lived in poverty for two years might both be situationally poor, but their circumstances are obviously different. Why don’t we account for differences that might exist between these subgroups.

Similarly, there are families where exactly two generations have lived in poverty and families who have lived in poverty for all of living memory. There are also families who have been poor as far into history as we can follow them. Again, these seem like substantial distinctions. There may be differences between the experience of poverty when someone’s grandparents were not poor (and, therefore, other family members might have wealth) and that experience when no known ancestor has had wealth.

When we divide poverty into these two broad categories, we miss those potentially revealing distinctions. Again, this might be solved by having a larger system in which these were just two super-categories, but that isn’t the case here. Instead, we’re asked to believe that diverse situations and experiences can be accounted for by just two categories.

These Categories Explain Too Much

This is the biggest problem I have: situational and generational poverty as asked to explain too much. A page at Portland State University – which adds ‘working class poverty’ to the mix, makes claims like:

  • People living in generational poverty “never knew anyone who benefited from education,” and
  • People living in generational poverty “never knew anyone who moved up or was respected in a job.”

Those are what we might call ‘bold claims’. Someone living in generational poverty might not have anyone in their family or neighborhood who has benefitted from education, but they idea that they would know no one who has seems unlikely: the people teaching their children, the physician at the urgent care clinic, and so on have benefitted from their education.

Of course, the most famous person who makes bold use of the distinction between situational and generational poverty is Ruby Payne, who manages to ascribe different cultures and linguistic traditions to the two groups. In fact, one of the key differences for her is that “the attitude in generational poverty is that society owes one a living,” while “in situational poverty the attitude is often one of pride and a refusal to accept charity.”1Ruby Payne et alBridges Out of Poverty, Kindle Edition (Highlands: aha! Process Inc., 1999), Kindle Locations 699-700 These are all huge differences, especially considering that no differences within situational or generational poverty are noted.

Conclusion

As I said at the beginning, I don’t know whether situational and generational poverty are useful categories or not. I’m skeptical for the reasons I listed, but I’m also not ready to just cast them aside.

Perhaps they would be useful as part of a bigger system, or as categories with sub-categories, or as part of a multi-axis system of considering poverty. As they stand however, they strike me as arbitrary categories that let people make quick, value-laden judgements (as Payne does).

There has to be something better.

Footnotes   [ + ]

New York Times: For Alabama Christians, Governor Bentley’s Downfall Is a Bitter Blow

“The idea that moral hypocrisy hurts you among evangelical voters is not true, if you’re sound on all of the fundamentals,” said Wayne Flynt, an ordained Baptist minister and one of Alabama’s pre-eminent historians. “Being sound on the fundamentals depends on what the evangelical community has decided the fundamentals have become. At this time, what is fundamental is hating liberals, hating Obama, hating abortion and hating same-sex marriage.”

Some Thoughts on MultiState Nonprofit Registration

If you’re part of a small nonprofit organization that solicits gifts in multiple states, you’re probably a little familiar with multistate nonprofit registration. This is the requirement that nonprofit organizations that are based in one state and ask for gifts in another state have to register with the second state.

So, for example, an organization based in Davenport, Iowa, that sends a direct mail appeal across the Mississippi River to its neighbor, Rock Island, Illinois, must also register as a soliciting organization in Illinois.

Now, just so we have some clarity on this and don’t cause anyone to panic, a few notes. First, churches are often exempt from registration. So a congregation in Davenport that sends a pledge form to a member in Rock Island probably does not need to register. Second, an organization doesn’t need to register in order to receive gifts. If someone from Rock Island sends a gift to the nonprofit in Davenport, that doesn’t mean the organization in Davenport needs to register. The organization only needs to register if it solicits gifts in another state. Third, there’s no firm ruling on how this affects online solicitations like emails, social media, or a nice shiny donate button on a website.

Multistate registration is required by something like 38 states plus the District of Columbia. For organizations that solicit in just a couple of states, that might be no big deal. For organizations that solicit in a lot of states – organizations that have a national donor base – it is a tremendous challenge. Even though there is a movement for a unified registration form, some states haven’t agreed to it, and the states that have agreed to it often require additional forms that are state-specific. In addition to the forms, of course, there are supplemental materials that need to be collected and fees that need to be paid.

For a large organization, this might be feasible (though I won’t claim that it would be easy). A sizable accounting department, with help from the development office, might be able to take care of these registrations in the normal course of business. For small or mid-size organizations, however, this is a serious challenge.

To give an example, I know of an organization with a national donor base that could not handle the work of all of these registrations in house. There simple wasn’t the staff with the necessary expertise (not to mention time). They hired a very reputable company that handles this work for them. The total cost – the service fee to the company, the registration fees to states, and other fees – was about $10,000.

That represents less than one percent of that organization’s budget (it’s about the same amount they actually spend on direct mail appeals each year). It also represents children not fed, families not housed, people not clothed, case management not provided, homes not repaired, and dozens of other tasks not completed. For a smaller organization, with a national donor base, this would be debilitating.

I’m sure that the logic behind multistate registration is to protect unwary residents from being scammed by fake ‘charities’. I’m also suspect that some states see this as an opportunity to bring in a little revenue. But I am also absolutely sure that there is a better way to do this. For example, what if every organization that is registered with the IRS was exempt from these requirements? The IRS could share its list of legitimate organizations with the states. That would protect the unwary and remove a burden on nonprofits that would much rather use those registration fees to help people.

So, perhaps rather than a movement for a unified form that would be used as part of the package sent to some of the states, we need a real push for national — and only national — nonprofit registration.

When People Tell You That Everything You’re Doing Is Wrong

Over at Coffeehouse Contemplative, Jeff Nelson has a parody that beat me to an issue I’ve been wanting to address: the idea that everything you’re doing is wrong.

Here’s a non-comprehensive list of things I am apparently doing wrong: tying my shoes, adding milk to scrambled eggs, putting oil in pasta, peeling bananas, crossing out words, eating tic tacs, eating cupcakes, cutting bread, and putting rolls of toilet paper on the toilet paper holder. “You’re doing it wrong,” has become the cute click-bait listicle way of saying “Here’s a different approach.”

And I like cute click-bait listicles. That’s probably another thing I’m doing wrong. But we live in a hypercritical culture. That’s especially true on the internet, where ‘well… actually’ has become a mantra.

So, I want to say just three, easy things:

You are doing things wrong. I am doing things wrong. It is a fact of human life that we make mistakes and we build bad habits. Some of the things we do wrong matter: we support unethical companies, we hurt other people, we make the world a little worse or we fail to make it a little better.

Different isn’t wrong. You can tie your shoes however you want. You can put oil in your pasta. You can cut bread from the top. There might be ways to do things that are different. There might be ways to do things that are better. But that doesn’t mean that they way you are doing things is wrong.

As long as it works and it doesn’t hurt anyone, it’s fine. This is a key point. Do the things that work for you and don’t hurt anyone else. That’s fine. That’s good. But also seek to improve from there, because who wants to settle for fine?

In a world that is increasingly critical, we don’t need more lists of things we’re doing wrong. We need permission to be doing the best we can, and encouragement to do better tomorrow.

It Does All Belong to God. That Doesn’t Mean It All Belongs to the Church. It Sure Doesn’t Mean It All Belongs to Your Church.

My wife is a pastor of a local congregation of the United Church of Christ. That means that she sometimes receives mail from fundraising consultants looking for clients. Recently, she got a mailing that included these two paragraphs (emphasis original):

Why aren’t their people giving as they could or should? It’s not the economy which goes up and down like a thermometer. It’s not unemployment, though many people have simply quit looking for work. And it’s not that they don’t love the Lord or want to see their church grow and abound.

The reason people are not giving as they could or should is that they have never been trained to give. They have never come face to face with the fact that God owns it all. They have never realized that all of us own exactly the same amount – zero – and that we are managers and stewards of what God has entrusted to us.

Sigh. This is an attitude I see a lot in fundraising for religious organizations. It is frighteningly common belief that being a good steward of God’s gifts means using those gifts to support one particular organization: my organization. In the church, it looks like the paragraphs I quoted: people who are good stewards of God’s gifts will give those gifts to my church.

And that’s just not true.

Being a good steward of God’s gifts means doing with those gifts what God calls us to do with those gifts. And while many people are called to give to the institutional church or to a particular congregation, many people are called to give to other organizations as well (or instead). I believe that God really does want us to support education and the arts; God really does want us to help refugees and support human rights; God really does want us to save the rainforests and keep rhinoceroses from going extinct.

God has a lot of work for us to do. Sometimes that’s going to mean giving our gifts to organizations other than our congregations. Sometimes, that’s even going to mean not giving our gifts to our congregations.

Because sometimes, our congregations are terrible stewards of those gifts. Sometimes, our congregations aren’t doing the work that we’re called to give to. Sometimes, our congregations are more focused on maintaining an institution than being a force for good in the world.

And most of the time, when people aren’t giving, it isn’t because people don’t understand the importance of giving.

It’s because people haven’t been given a reason to give.

So this letter had some things right. When people aren’t giving to a congregation, it isn’t because of the economy, it isn’t because of unemployment, it isn’t because they don’t love the Lord. But it also isn’t that they’ve never learned to give.

But it may be because that congregation hasn’t made a strong case that it is a worthy recipient of those gifts. And making that case is what congregations should focus on.

Development Is a Program

Recently, on a forum I frequent, I came across this question:

Fundraising seems like a full time job. How do you do it when you’re the only employee of your nonprofit, and you have to do it all, from programming, accounting, marketing, events, and fundraising?

I responded on that forum, but I wanted to take a minute to flesh out my response here.

One of the mistakes that a lot of nonprofits make is thinking that development is something that they do in addition to their programs. Often, those nonprofits believe that development is something they do in order to support their real work: it’s how they raise the money to feed the hungry, house the homeless, care for abandoned animals, and so on.

I believe that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of nonprofits and the role of development. I believe that development is part of the mission of every nonprofit.

In a sense, every nonprofit has two sets of clients. One is the group of people we usually think of as clients. The other is the donors who support the organization. You see, one of the purposes of a nonprofit organization is to be a conduit for the power of its donors to change the world; every nonprofit is an organization that donors give through, not just to. People who want to feed the hungry do that by giving through nonprofits that feed the hungry. People who want to house the homeless do that by giving through nonprofits that house the homeless. And so on. Those donors might do other things as well, but one of the ways they take action is through their giving.

Once a nonprofit sees this, it can begin understanding its donors not as potential sources of funding, but as people who it is serving.

Realizing that doesn’t make fundraising any less work. It doesn’t diminish the size of ‘doing it all’. But it does change the nature of that work. Once the only employee, and the Board, and volunteers, understand that fundraising and stewardship are part of the mission, they can integrate that work into the work of the organization. And that can make an unbelievable difference.

Vox: This Kenyan Village Is a Laboratory for the Biggest Basic Income Experiment Ever

Charities almost never have good evidence that what they want to spend money on is better than what poor people would choose to spend the money on if they just got the cash themselves. I certainly don’t trust myself to know what the world’s poorest people need most.

I’ve been profoundly lucky to never experience the kind of extreme poverty that billions of people worldwide have to endure. I have no idea what I would spend a cash transfer from GiveDirectly on if I were in Jacklin’s shoes. Would I spend it on school fees? Maybe! Or maybe I’d use it to supplement my food budget. Or save for a new house. I really don’t know.

You know who does have a good sense of the needs of poor people like Jacklin? Poor people like Jacklin. They have a very good idea of what they need. And you should only give something other than cash if you are confident you know the recipients’ needs better than they do.

Two Challenges When Raising Money from Churches

My official title is ‘church relations associate’, so you might think that I spend a lot of my time relating to congregations. And, since my job is to raise money, you might think I spend a lot of time raising money from congregations.

I don’t.

I spend far more of my time relating to – and raising money from – individuals. Yes, I visit congregations. I preach. I attend events. I ask them to send groups to volunteer. I ask them for money. But I spend more of my time on direct mail, social media, email, our website, phone calls, and personal visits with individuals.

Here’s why: raising money from congregations is hard. The amount of effort it takes to raise $1,000 from a congregation is generally exponentially larger than the amount of effort it takes to raise the same amount of money from an individual or family. This is true for two major reasons. First, many congregations are themselves under a great deal of financial pressure. Second, decision making authority in congregations tends to be dispersed.

Financial Pressure in Congregations

Let’s be honest, a lot of congregations – especially, but not only, mainline congregations – are facing immense financial pressures. We live in an era of rising employment costs, aging memberships, shrinking congregations, and a million other realities that mean that congregations have less money to spend on more things.

This fact is easily illustrated by looking at employment in churches. As I write this, there are eight congregations in the Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ (my own denomination) actively searching for a pastor. Seven of those positions are part time, and one of them is part time and temporary. Five of the congregations have a membership of under 100 people (two more have a membership of 100 people). Five of them also have total budgets under $100,000 per year.

I’m not going to claim that those congregations are representative of mainline congregations, but I suspect that more mainline congregations look like these congregations than don’t.

And how many of them are in any position to make a financial contribution to another organization?

The simple fact is that more congregations are facing these kinds of financial pressures. And when they face these pressures, one of the first things they try to do is cut their budgets. And when they try to cut their budgets, one of the first places they look is their mission spending, whether that’s to their denomination or to outside organizations.

Decision Making in Congregations

It’s easy to imagine that the best route to a gift from a congregation is through the pastor. After all, the pastors have real authority within churches and can be powerful advocates for missions that they believe in. Even if the congregation is thinking about cutting their total mission spending, surely the pastor can make sure that a particular line of mission spending is kept… or even increased!

And that’s true… up to a point.

The fact is that in most congregations, the pastor has some – but nowhere close to all – of the decision making power. When it comes to mission spending, the pastor is a lone voice. Decision making authority rests with the stewardship committee (which raises the money), the finance committee (which designs the budget), the mission committee (which makes specific recommendations about mission spending), and the congregation (which must approve all of these decisions in some way). The ability to make decisions is dispersed across committees and individuals throughout the congregation.

And who those individuals are – whether they act alone or as part of a committee – can change from year to year or even month to month.

That means that you, as a fundraiser, never know quite who to approach about that gift. And given the variety of budget making processes in congregations, you may never quite know when.

Conclusion

That leaves fundraisers seeking money from churches in a tight position. We’re talking about raising money from an organization that probably doesn’t have money to spare. And we’re talking about doing that without a clear picture of who to speak to or when to speak to them. That is not an idea position to be in when asking for money.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t ask congregations for money, of course. It just means that you need to recognize the limits of doing that. You are far better off focusing on individuals. And, if you want to raise money from congregations, equipping those individuals to be advocates within their own congregations.

 

Washington Post: Laziness Isn’t Why People Are Poor. And IPhones Aren’t Why They Lack Health Care.

Third — and conveniently, perhaps, for people like Chaffetz or House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) — this stubborn insistence that people could have more money or more health care if only they wanted them more absolves the government of having to intervene and use its power on their behalf. In this way of thinking, reducing access to subsidized health insurance isn’t cruel, it’s responsible, a form of tough love in which people are forced to make good choices instead of bad ones. This is both patronizing and, of course, a gross misreading of the actual outcome of laws like these.

The New York Times: The Pope on Panhandling

But what if someone uses the money for, say, a glass of wine? (A perfectly Milanese question.) His answer: If “a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that’s O.K. Instead, ask yourself, what do you do on the sly? What ‘happiness’ do you seek in secret?” Another way to look at it, he said, is to recognize how you are the “luckier” one, with a home, a spouse and children, and then ask why your responsibility to help should be pushed onto someone else.