Last weekend I had a great priviledge of doing a two hour training on poverty for Raleigh’s Support Circles. Support Circles is a program of Catholic Charities. It matches up small groups of congregational volunteers with homeless households to provide them social support as these households move to self-sufficiency. I spend some time defining poverty, sharing some of the most recent data and talking about how poverty impacts health and education. As part of the discussion, one of the support circle volunteers asked me, “You haven’t talked about personal responsibility? Don’t you believe that people have personal responsbility to improve their situation?” Of course, this comment comes during the week following Mitt Romney’s comments regarding the 47% who believe they are entitled to public support and do not take personal responsibility to care for their lives. So perhaps talking about personal responsibility and poverty is a timely thing to talk about.
I just saw this article written by a woman who was on welfare and shook my head. I remember many variations of this story when I was working as Genesis Home’s Executive Director. It was true, the majority of families who found themselves homeless and living in this transitional housing program were in a temporary situation. However, they needed some government assistance to move out of their current situation, a homeless shelter, and needed to continue that assistance until they were stable.
So as I thought about the volunteer’s question on Saturday, I asked the question: What in your life have you been able to control, and what in your life have you not been able to control? In my own life, there were things I could control and things I couldn’t control. When I can’t control something, I don’t feel like I can take responsibility. Suppose I have a job, and I am laid off because the plant is moving overseas. Am I responsible? No. Am I going to need assistance to make ends meet? If I haven’t managed to save up enough, I might need unemployment assistance. Do I have control over getting a new job? Well, not really, that is dependent upon an employer’s decision, not mine. I do have control over completing applications, preparing for interviews, and ensuring I make a good impression, but even a good impression is someone else’s judgement of me. However, what if jobs are scarce in my community? Do I settle for a part-time position, with no benefits? Perhaps. After all that is in my control and having some income is helpful. What happens though, if in the cycle of applying for jobs and getting rejected, I feel discouraged? Hmm. It begins to feel as if I have no control, frustration rises, and I’m hooked into a cycle of feeling like the system is against me. Guess what, it is going to be hard for me to take responsibility; particularly if it feels like things are spiraling out of my control.
The good thing is that I have a support system that would help me think about what I can and can’t control. Some individuals and families may not have that support. I’m glad the Support Circle volunteers are asking these tough questions and talking about what they can do to help. Sometimes personal responsibility can seem elusive, but when we help others discern what they can and can’t control, and help them understand the small steps to take, confidence will lead to greater personal responsibility and that is another step in the process toward self sufficiency.
Image from caregiverland.com