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The weight of poverty

If you’re poor, others look at you as something less than a real person, more of a number in the system, said two women who fell into poverty and with the help of others climbed out of it.

But “we are all the same,” said Dawn Dowden, vice president of operations of Homes of Hope in Greenville who was once homeless with her three children. “Folks are just born in different circumstances.”

Economic mobility is vital to Americans trying to move up the economic ladder, Sarah Sattelmeyer, senior associate, Financial Security and Mobility, Pew Charitable Trusts, told audience members at the third Straight Talk SC forum on “The Crisis of the Working Poor.”

But it’s tough.

“Americans raised at the top and the bottom are likely to stay there as adults,” she said.

Dowden and Tammi Hart, executive assistants at Day and Zimmerman in Greenville, told their stories at the forum sponsored by the Riley Institute at Furman and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute @ Furman. The two women, who said they grew up in middle class families and knew little if anything about poverty, stressed that building relationships was vital to their successes.

Dowden and her three sons fell into poverty and then homelessness after her husband was diagnosed and struggled with mental illness, unable to work because of the illness.

“That rocked our family,” she said. “It robbed my husband of his mind, his life, and his dreams and hopes.”

Once a person enters the system set up to help poverty-stricken people, “you’re a number,” she said. “We ended up at food banks I had formerly donated to.”

When she found help through GAHIN, a program that houses homeless families at area churches, then provides transitional housing and helps them find permanent housing, “I was so scared and in such survival mode.”

But although she felt a failure as a mother because she was unable to protect her children, she knew she had to do something to change the situation. She obtained a job at Homes of Hope and “that job has become my calling,” she said.

By helping families, she helps children in the same situation hers were in. “These kids don’t have a choice,” she said. “These kids deserve a home.”

Hart’s journey through poverty, which lasted 20 years, began when she became pregnant as a freshman at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

“My version of the American dream died when I fell into poverty,” she said, adding that she had two additional children within five years. “I became intimate friends with the system. “
With a high school degree and some college, the highest pay she received was $8.50 an hour, she said. Childcare was a major challenge. When a woman looking after her children was unable to continue, Hart ended up losing her job because she had to take care of the kids.

“I had nobody to turn to,” she said. Even when living in the projects, she had few friends because “I was different. I was not street smart. The chains of poverty got tighter and tighter and my hope diminished,” she said.

By that time, she had become dependent on the system. Eventually she realized she had to do something to ease the way for her children. She moved to Greenville, connected with GAHIN and found a job within two months—after searching for six months when living in a rural area.

“I felt so good,” she said, “being around people who were encouraging. I needed people who built bridges and pulled me across them.”

Many Americans make more money in comparable dollars than their parents did, which is termed absolute economic mobility. Many fewer are able to move up a rung on the economic ladder, which is termed relative mobility, Sattelmeyer said. Of youngsters raised on the bottom rung of that ladder, 43 percent remain there as adults. Only 4 percent raised in the bottom fifth of the economic ladder, make it to the top fifth as adults.

It’s harder nowadays to move up a rung because “the distance between the rungs of the income ladder has widened over the past generation,” she said. And it’s even harder for blacks to make that move up than it is for whites in this country.

The major indicators for economic mobility are financial capital, such as home ownership or savings; human capital such as skills and a college education; and social capital, which include non-financial relationships such as strong neighborhoods and professional organizations.

People who manage to move out of the bottom fifth of the population economically tend to have a cushion or savings or a little wealth, she said. They are six times more likely to have more in savings, eight times more likely to have a little wealth and 21 times more likely to have equity in a home.

“Economic mobility and economic security go hand-in-hand,” she said. “Education has become an increasingly important driver of economic mobility” and that often depends on that financial cushion of savings or financial assets.

Also, “where you live in the country really matters to your economic mobility,” she said, pointing out that South Carolina lags the nation in absolute mobility and relative upper mobility while it is a higher percentage of relative downward mobility.

Last updated August 11, 2014
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Clinton Colmenares
News & Media Relations Director