My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Poverty in all its multitudinous forms is not an easy subject to broach. An age-old problem, poverty, its root causes, as well as poverty reduction have all been studied and theorized, it seems, ad infinitum. It is not often that someone presents poverty in a more nuanced way than generalized and ubiquitous thinking on poverty. In Reframing Poverty: New Thinking and Feeling About Humanity’s Greatest Challenge, Eric Meade takes a deep dive into how poverty is more of an emotional construct that evokes feeling as opposed to the more widely read and globally accepted set of data points. Meade’s conclusions take some time and thinking to wrap your brain around to be sure. In fact, I had to put this book down several times to keep from seething. I do, however, appreciate new ideas that can be engaged in rather than reading the same poverty reduction principles that seem to keep vulnerable communities trapped in a cycle of poverty with Sisyphean tendencies.
It has been a very long time since I jotted down notes in a book I was reading. Reframing Poverty will make you do that! There is so much about poverty packed into this book that serious thinkers on the matter won’t want to miss any of Meade’s points. In fact, it should be critical reading for those who are on the perpetual frontlines of poverty reduction. Depending on your vantage point Meade’s conclusions on poverty can either make you comfortable or very uncomfortable. I often fell into the latter group. I found many of Meade’s points about poverty were bolstered by using examples over and over again about the black community like the Moynihan Report, The Bell Curve, single motherhood, the welfare state, broken families, black men in the prison system and even an excerpt from the Brookings Institute about black and Hispanic poverty. The singular juxtaposition to these examples was Ben Carson’s journey out of poverty with his mother as a catalyst. When I started reading Reframing Poverty I assumed poverty would be discussed within a global framework, not simply an American one largely with a direct arrow pointed at black poverty. That was disappointing.
Much of Reframing Poverty accounts for reasons why poor people remain trapped in poverty including not working hard enough to escape it to not having the mental fortitude to think about one’s future outside of poverty. Instead, immediate gratification trumps all else and creates outcomes counter to socioeconomic mobility. Meade does his due diligence to back up his claims. The bibliography and endnotes are extensive. It just so happens that my personal thoughts on poverty lean more towards societal ills that contribute to poverty. Certainly, society cannot be blamed solely for poverty, but it also cannot be held blameless either. Poverty is complex. Meade warns his readers that in order to advance the conversation about poverty we need to work through our emotions about it. I’m not sure it’s that easy, but I do understand where Meade is coming from. If we don’t think about poverty differently the same trite solutions about poverty will continue to burden reducing it.
While there is much in the book that vexed my sensibilities about poverty I can genuinely appreciate Meade’s conclusions. I was hoping to see more about humanity, compassion and even faith in how to deal with poverty, but didn’t read much of that. I believe that’s Meade’s point: We need to work past raw emotions in order to see poverty in a broader sense to improve the world.
Photo: Jennifer James