I posted an update on our fundraising site on August 19th that was kind of the impetus for starting this blog. On there I had a few links to articles and research about attachment. As I’ve been noodling around this past week, I know now that there is a lot more to learn. There are various levels of attachment problems. I’m going to do more reading and get back to you.

What has been really on my mind the last few days is the cycle of poverty. What gets that going? What creates the kind of environment that makes it difficult to succeed and move forward?

We got a dose of it this weekend. Jill and Grace have a cousin (we’ll call him Keion) who has aged out of foster care. He has come by quite a few times, often staying for dinner and hanging out with us. He’s even been useful in situations when we’ve had fights with the girls. We know that he’s not doing well, and that he has some issues that keep him from moving forward with his life.

A week or so ago, Keion and Jill got into a HUGE fight. One of those fights between family that result in people being very hurt and saying things that they probably shouldn’t say to each other. Jill and Grace weren’t talking for most of the week, but (mostly) resolved their issues by Saturday. Saturday night Keion came over. He and Jill still aren’t talking, but were interacting. Grace heard Keion mutter things to try and provoke Jill, but we were upstairs or something and didn’t hear them. I came down to get something to eat and suddenly found myself in the middle of a good old-fashioned ghetto throw down. I screamed for Leonard to come and help and he ended up bodily ejecting Keion from the house. I was terribly upset, and only thankful that the baby was asleep upstairs. Then Grace said something that hit me;
“You just don’t know how to handle tension.”

Well, I made it clear that I had no desire to learn that skill. I am fine not having the ability to handle things like that. The thing is, they don’t really either, and Jill was in rare form all day Sunday. I did say some things about trying to be the bigger person, trying not to feed into their cousin’s negativity, yada yada. But it was like I was speaking a foreign language.

The theories of Cycle of Poverty tend to focus on access to education and access to resources. There’s a crucial piece missing, though. That’s how you carry yourself in the world, how you interact. Do you know how to shake someone’s hand? Do you know how to talk to a stranger who may be able to offer you a job? Can you be comfortable in a new situation? Do you explode with anger if someone says something or does something that hurts your feelings, or are you able to talk to the person who pissed you off and work it out?

Geoffery Canada and the staff at the HarlemChildren’s Zone have been taking a stab at supplying a community in Harlem with the resources to break that cycle. They provide incredible wrap-around services that help to break the intergenerational destructive cycles.

A large number of people who could be considered in a “cycle of poverty” are dependent on social welfare, such as disability or state assistance programs. Planet Money and This American Life did some excellent reporting on what happened to the welfare roles in the 1990’s, and I see the evidence supporting their hypothesis every day around me. They then have kids (often more than they can actually support) and those kids learn behaviors and patterns that aren’t conducive to being successful.

Grace had a person she was interested in dating visit one time. This young man could “code switch” with the best of them, jumping between a polished and respectful way of speaking with us and regular slang when it was just them. At one point in our conversation, Grace laughed and said “You don’t talk like that! Why you talkin’ like that?” He looked confused, and I explained code-switching to her. He could talk in an educated, polite way when he was talking to us. She had never heard of this idea, never even thought about it, which made me sad. It meant that she had spent her entire existence in a bubble of slang and name calling. Even if she turns out to be the smartest person in the world, teaching her code switching is going to be tough.

Tonight she confessed that I’m the first person she’s ever lived with who has a full time job.

Think about that for a minute. Her entire life, none of her caregivers have gotten up at the same time every day and gone to work. None of them have dragged their sick, sorry asses out of bed and gone to work with the sniffles. None of her role models have done the things they really don’t want to do because they HAD to do them.

I asked who in her family she most wants to be like when she grows up. She told me none of them.

Both girls love their family, but recognize that there’s something about them they don’t want to have in their lives. Every once in a while it seems that they recognize what it is they need to change, but then when they have to do something that’s tough or hard, they don’t want to make that choice. Of course some of that is teenager stuff, but it’s frustrating because it feels like the stakes are higher.

Because they are.