Broken Bootstraps

By Colleen Sinsky

Acknowledging generational poverty isn’t popular in America, where we emphasize the ‘can-do’ independent, rugged individualism that liberated our forefathers from the British and Manifest Destiny-ed our way across the Great Plains. We love “rags to riches” stories that tell us that anyone who puts in enough effort can climb up the economic ladder. The sad reality is that 20% of children in Oregon live in families that earn below the federal poverty line, and of these families, over half have at least one working parent, according to a study by the National Center for Children in Poverty. And, ironically for a nation that so strongly believes in an individual’s ability to be upwardly mobile, the US has the second-highest correlation between parent-child income levels across generations. For a more detailed look at intergenerational mobility in the US, check out this 2006 paper for the Center for American Progress.

Today I talked on the phone to one of our families who just gave birth the other day to a baby who was immediately put on detoxification for the methadone treatment his mother is on. I should let the reader know that multiple agencies and a hospital social worker are involved, and the baby is healthy, the parents are loving and they will all be out of the hospital soon. But what a way to start life. The parents have pretty limited resources and are staying in a temporary hotel situation. We’re working on them getting into a more stable apartment. It’s hard for me not to project forward the life this child statistically may end up living. Yes, it’s possible to pull oneself up by the bootstraps, but sometimes the odds seem depressingly weighted against people.