With the delineation of the economic classes, it may be a safe bet to assume those in poverty rarely mingle with the wealthy, and that the middle class may or may not have contact with either. More times than not folks tend to socialize and do business with those of their own ilk.
But thanks to "Bridges Out of Poverty" that's beginning to change.
Bridges is an initiative that brings together and educates businesses and organizations to help them better understand those in poverty and poverty itself. An employer, for example, would learn more valuable and desirable ways to communicate with and retain employees who may be on the lower end of the economic scale. The objective is to create a "Bridges Community," where folks from all walks of life work collaboratively to build a more secure, accepting and prosperous Summit County for all socioeconomic backgrounds.
There are hundreds of Bridges communities across the country but overseeing Summit County's is Hannah Nitz, who works at Open M, has a master's in social work and said she has the "joy of a job to lead and coordinate all of this." Open M is one of the 22 agencies countywide that help make Bridges happen.
Nitz grew up in a middle class family and recalls that her Bridges training provided a "big aha moment for me."
At this writing, about 2,500 participants have taken the full-day Bridges workshop. There are about five to six workshops held annually, but Nitz also travels to workplaces and other venues to conduct them as well. Cost per workshop attendee is $30 for books, materials and lunch. Past trainees have included FedEx, churches and social service agencies, and Metro requires its bus drivers to attend. Schoolteacher Ruby Payne, who, Nitz said, was reared middle class, taught at an inner-city school where most of the students were from low-income homes.
Payne found "huge differences" as to how teachers and others viewed these students and wrote for teachers a "framework for understanding poverty," Nitz said. Social worker Philip DeVol and health care professional Terie Dreussi Smith felt more than just teachers needed to be educated about poverty, so together the three wrote the curriculum for Bridges Out of Poverty.
A big misconception about those in poverty is that "they're lazy," Nitz said, "Or, why don't they just get a job? It's not that hard. I did it."
"Most people in generational poverty hang out with people in poverty," Nitz acknowledged. "Most of their community is walking or biking distance or on a bus line. And there's an absence of positive support systems, encouragement and role models."
And part of the problem may be that getting a job can actually be a detriment.
Nitz said a single mother of two might be getting subsidized housing and utilities, along with cash assistance, food stamps and a medical card. If she were to take a $10 an hour job, all or most of that assistance would go away and she may find herself back in the same boat, struggling to pay for all of that on her own. Part of Bridges instruction uses the "Hidden Rules" of the low, middle and upper class, as defined by Payne.
One crucial rule is TIME.
"When dealing with time in generational poverty, it's for the moment," Nitz said. "So if they're making a decision, they take into consideration the right now because they're in survival mode. What do I do now?"
In addition to survival, another motivating force is relationships, which if one in poverty is relationship-driven, then a full-time job isn't that important, said Nitz, who added, "Most people in generational poverty don't think they're in poverty because it's all they know!"
The middle-class time rule is seated in work, achievement and is more future-oriented. "When I was going to grad school at night and working during the day, I was focused on the future, the needed education to get my degree." The wealthy are not too focused on the present and the future is taken care of, Nitz said, so they tend to look at "traditions and history, the past ... I'm going to Yale because my father and grandfather went there."
Nitz said none of these examples are right or wrong, but if generational poverty wants to move to the middle class or higher they need to now how that class typically thinks and makes decisions. And conversely, those outside of poverty need to understand the mindset of those within to create a shift in thinking so that all classes can better understand where the other is coming from and to challenge all on an individual level.
"If all I think is that those in generational poverty are lazy or on drugs, I'm not going to want to do much to change that because I am thinking it's the choices they've made," Nitz illustrated. "But if I understand some of the things that cause and keep people in poverty, it's going to change the way I view it."
Beginning January 2013, a collaboration with Bridges Out of Poverty will be launched. "Circles" will bring together two volunteers and a Getting Ahead graduate to form an intentional relationship of friendship and support to help the graduate pursue their goal to escape poverty. Getting Ahead is a program that offers an educational 14-session workshop to those in generational poverty. It gives participants the tools to better understand their own poverty and how it affects the community around them, and a plan to build on their own resources to better themselves and their communities.
"A big thing for getting out of poverty is social capital and having a positive support system," Nitz said. "Some Circles will have a graduate working with two middle class or wealthy class individuals. Stereotypes are broken."
"The whole initiative is really challenging all three of the economic classes to view things differently."