Want to Know What Poor People Need? First Ask the Right Questions.

The National Diaper Bank Network responded to my post on diaper needs by alerting me to a new curriculum it developed in collaboration with other members of MOMS Partnership, a coalition of public agencies and private-sector organizations in New Haven, Connecticut.

The curriculum is for social service professions who assess the needs of poor and near-poor families and provide related care and/or referrals. It aims to inject attention to basic needs into what they do.

“Our instincts,” the Network’s Executive Director Joanne Goldblum says, “can lead us to habitually conclude that the best solutions to addressing chronic issues are referrals for more supports and services,” e.g., therapy, parenting classes, job skills training.

But solutions to what the professionals observe and ferret out in interviews could, in one respect, be a whole lot simpler and swifter — not to mention cheaper.

For example, a social worker visits a family. She sees piles of dirty laundry, dust bunnies everywhere, a toddler wandering around in a wet diaper.

She’s likely to conclude that the mother suffers from clinical depression — and her children perhaps from the sort of neglect that warrants the intervention of the child welfare agency.

But the mom may merely not have enough money for the laundromat and detergent, a vacuum sweeper and fresh diapers.

In short, the social worker sees a parent who needs to be fixed, rather than unmet basic needs she could readily identify if she just asked the right questions. They’re part of what she’d learn to ask in training based on the curriculum.

What would she do with the answers? What sort of referral, for example, could readily supply detergent and a sweeper — or the cash to buy them? What if the family’s not in a community where nonprofits distribute free diapers?

Goldblum, who helped develop the curriculum and now uses it in workshops, had a multi-part answer for me.

First, sensitized social service workers would advocate within their organizations for a basic needs line item in the budget or a more general fund they could tap to provide families with money for basic needs — or to buy them for the family.

Second, they would reach out to local voluntary groups that could donate items or initiate collections, like the diaper drives the Network promotes.

A number of social workers and nurses now spend their own money to supply basic needs, Goldblum told me. This is hardly a fair or sufficient solution, though it speaks well of the professionals who are perceptive and caring enough to dig into their own wallets for urgent needs.

Third, social service workers would advocate for public policies and programs that meet basic needs. They would, one hopes, try to engage their organizations and their networks, including their professional associations and online groups they belong to.

So how do we get from where we are to where we ought to be? Goldblum hopes the curriculum will, in the long run, help change both policies and practice.

But for both, she said, we need more “public conversation” about how social service professionals, policymakers and the rest of us feel about people in poverty. The conversation, if honest, would reveal that negative feelings about poor people aren’t confined to right-wingers whose diatribes and slurs we read in the press.

All this stuff about how poor parents are irresponsible. How they’re poor because they’ve made bad choices — and won’t pull themselves together to remedy the damage. How they don’t care about their children’s well-being. Etc.

Social services professionals themselves, the curriculum says, may make unconscious negative judgments based on “superficial factors” — smelly clothes, for example, or missed appointments.

They may have become somewhat jaded, I’m told, because poor clients do sometimes make unwise decisions — as do we all. Poverty itself, however, may make people prone to decisions that don’t serve their best interests.

A widely-reported study concluded that worries about financial problems take up so much mental “bandwidth” that people may not have enough left over for everyday challenges like resisting things they should — let alone for activities that could lift them out of poverty, e.g., looking for a better-paying job.

We’ve got other research indicating that poverty-related stress and “negative affective states,” e.g., unhappiness, make people “short-sighted and risk-averse” such that they’ll make decisions that perpetuate their poverty.

One formerly low-income mother achieved some celebrity — and a book contract — by blogging on her extraordinarily stressful life and reasons she made “bad” financial decisions. These include her feeling that they don’t matter because she “will never not be poor.”

Addressing basic needs won’t in itself get to the root causes of poverty. But it surely would relieve stress, misery and probably utter hopelessness.

After all, something troubling did get better. Someone in “the system” asked questions relevant to pressing everyday concerns, listened to figure out what could relieve them — and delivered.

None of this is to say that poor parents don’t, in some cases, have problems that call for therapy, parenting skills training and the like. But, Goldblum says, providers can’t effectively get to such problems until basic needs gaps are filled.

The curriculum has broader implications than might first appear. One is that it’s a model for developing agendas. As my title suggests, if you want to know what poor people need, ask them.

Another is that it seeks to engage advocates whose professional expertise and experiences would make them especially effective.

A third that strikes me is what the curriculum represents. Poverty is a large, complex problem. Goldblum and her MOMS Partnership colleagues clearly understand this.

But they didn’t just throw up their hands. They saw an opportunity to jump start a programmatic shift that could become larger and branch into the public policy sphere. This, in fact, is how Goldblum built a national network from an insight and a local fund-raising initiative.

 

 

2 Responses to Want to Know What Poor People Need? First Ask the Right Questions.

  1. dnilan says:

    Kathryn, glad to see your diaper post is leading to further dialogue. We do need to ask the right questions of people we’re trying to help. And listen. And consider challenges from their standpoint. And advocate relentlessly, for them and with them, remembering the “them” is really us all. Thanks for your continued attention to families struggling with poverty.

  2. Kathryn Baer says:

    The approach you describe is the one you model every day. I’m so grateful for your attention to families struggling with poverty and homelessness.

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