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Getting Ahead Helping people break out of the cycle of poverty

Anna and Tabitha were sharing a ride from their West End apartment building to a meeting across town at Christ the King Church when a commotion up ahead of them caused them to slow down and take notice. A group of junior high boys were in the middle of a fight, piling on and punching someone in the middle of the scrum.

Wise by age and hardened by life in the lower class, the women pulled the car over and jumped out.

“Stop it,” they shouted. “Stop it now.”

They reached into the pile of bodies and began pulling them out, one by one.

“I wanted to see who was on the bottom,” says Anna, “because they were getting crushed.”

With the knot of boys untangled, they found out what the issue was and then sent them on their way back to school. In the end, the fight was about stuff. A watch. A belt. Maybe a pair of shoes. For many people, material goods wouldn’t be worth the violence, but in life within the world of poverty, stuff is important. It matters. And if someone is trying to take it, it’s worth fighting for.

How life works on the lower end of the economic spectrum is different than life in the middle class, which is equally as different from life in the upper class. The lifestyle is different. The priorities are different. The language is different. And most of those differences act as hidden barriers that keep people from moving outside of their economic class—an issue that especially challenging for those living in poverty.

People don’t understand how others live, so they tend to formulate circles of friends and neighbors that limit their desires and abilities to get ahead. That’s one reason why St. Vincent de Paul – Cincinnati offers “Getting Ahead in a Just Gettin’ By World,” a program built upon the works of Ruby Payne, an educator and expert in the culture of poverty, with Vincentian spirituality added on.

While St. Vincent de Paul most often acts as a safety net to help people living on the edge from getting sucked into the downward spiral of poverty and homelessness, part of the organization’s mission is to help educate and assist those looking to break out of the cycle of poverty. The Getting Ahead program has proven to be successful in the past, enough so that Conference Outreach Director Sunnie Lain is now offering the program five times a year, helping roughly 50 people annually break through and become more self-sufficient.

To get into the program, people have to apply and be chosen for their ability to learn and their desire to succeed. Many of the participants are encouraged to apply by Vincentians who have helped them with temporary assistance in the past and gotten to know them from home visits. Once in the program, they go through 10 modules over a 15-20 week period, learning the hidden rules of other economic classes before receiving long-term mentoring after graduation.

The program isn’t easy. Then again, neither is poverty.

Shortly after Tabitha moved into her apartment back in 1993, she went over the knocked on Anna’s door.

“I just wanted to let you know that my boyfriend gets violent sometimes,” Tabitha said, “so if you hear something like fighting, please call the police.”

“I’m going to do you one better,” replied Anna. “Here’s a key. If you need to escape, just come on in. We also share the fire escape. I’m going to leave my window unlocked. If you can’t get out the front door, crawl out on the fire escape and come in through the window.”

The two became fast friends.

“We’re like sisters now,” says Anna.

“We should call you Thelma and Louise,” Lain says with a laugh.

Five others are spread out around a table in a first floor conference room at Christ the King Church, just off Mt. Lookout Square. They are just a few weeks into their Getting Ahead program and getting into the heart of the training.

Last week the group studied the four causes of poverty—individual behaviors, community conditions, exploitation, and political and economic structures—and the homework was to document different types of issues within those areas. The discussion turns to exploitation and examples of predators who prey on people in poverty.

“Landlords,” someone offers.

“Drug dealers.”

“Panhandlers.”

“Panhandlers? How so?”

“You can watch them. They will pick and choose who they approach. They’ll skip young guys but will catch a lady. They’ll catch you in the Kroger parking lot and get aggressive. ‘Give me some change. ‘I know you got more than that.’ ‘C’mon, help a brother out.’ ‘You got something in your bag?’”

“They watch you and know where you’ve been based on what bag you’re carrying. I never bring anything in during the daytime, but wait until it’s dark, or I switch bags.”

Payday lenders are brought up. Everyone sighs and rolls their eyes.

“You go there for $50 and you end up paying them $200.”

“They know you’re trapped in concrete thinking,” says Lain, “that you’re putting out fires and not thinking ahead.”

Solutions are discussed.

“There are four reasons people get out of poverty,” says Lain. “Exceptional skill or ability, like an athlete. They meet a mentor who helps them—that’s the concept of Getting Ahead. They have a very specific goal or dream that drives them. Or that it’s so painful to stay in poverty they are willing to burn bridges or do anything they need to do to leave.”

She pulls a sheet off an easel pad and puts it in the middle of the table and then reads a story of a middle class family. They have kids, cars and credit card debt. To those in the room, even though they aren’t in the middle class, the struggles sound familiar.

“The middle class is not a magical place you land,” says Lain. “You can fall back just as quickly.”

Sitting at the end of the table, Maurice nods his head. “I lived that life,” he says. “Now I’m back living with my mom.”

They take turns writing on the paper all of the traits they hear about the middle class family, creating a mental model of what life is like. Maurice grows quiet. He has a good job—gets in a 4:00 a.m. every morning—but feels a need to stay where he is to support his mom, and a little reluctance to move up.

“What the Getting Ahead program tells us is that we are most impacted by our economic class, not race,” say Lain. “People hang out in the same economic class. But when you graduate, our goal is that something has changed inside of you.”

Maurice just looks at the sheet. “When I write this out and I see it, I look at it and think, ‘You’ve got some changes to make. A lot.’”

The group still has six more modules to get through. There’s time. And hope.

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