Donna Beegle has heard many stereotypes about why people are or continue to be impoverished: They’re lazy; they’re addicts, they’re alcoholic. However, none of those are the reasons why poverty remains in Cortland.
The answer to fighting poverty, Beegle said, lies in the community: the way it views poverty and the opportunities a community provides to people in poverty.
“We got to get at the systemic barriers,” Beegle said at a forum Thursday at the Grace Christian Fellowship Church in Cortlandville.
The second in a series of forums, Cortland County Community Action Program, Inc. brought together more than 100 officials from various organizations, the public and community leaders for the second step in helping get people out of poverty and keeping them out. To do so Cortland would become an Opportunity Community — a model to improve outcomes for the people who live in poverty, according to Beegle’s presentation. It’s a model Beegle helped form using her own 28 years of experience living in migrant labor poverty and years of research.
The Opportunity Community will look to address a number of principles including:
• Rebuilding hope.
• Removing shame and judgment.
• Starting grass-roots economic development.
• Reducing isolation.
• Creating a community-wide informed approach to poverty.
However, part of getting to the core of poverty is examining its stereotypes and myths;
• Addiction: “When I’m training people, I will inherently hear people say ‘You know Dr. Beegle the reason they’re poor is because they’re drug addicts,’” she said. “Addiction is not a poverty issue. The poverty issue is that if I do have an addiction what’s my access to treatment.”
She said she can count plenty of wealthy people — Elvis and Prince, for example — who were addicted and didn’t live in poverty. The reality she said, is that people who are addicted and live in poverty don’t have the access to treatment to better themselves.
“We keep asking the people in crisis to fix this and they don’t have the capacity to do so,” she said. “It’s an addiction and it requires intense treatment, so what are we doing as a community to address and ensure that people have access?”
• Alcoholism: Then there’s being poor because of alcoholism. Beegle said many of the communities she has worked in looked at alcoholism as a behavior and not a disease that requires treatment.
“We just say stop drinking or we’ll give you two hours of detox,” she said.
One of the highest consumers of alcohol she said are attorneys, “but they have access to treatment if they have insurance.”
• Domestic violence and abuse: It’s the same with domestic violence, sex abuse and child abuse, she said. Violence occurs in all social strata, not simply in poor households, so labeling low-income households isn’t helpful.
“Those things happen in all social classes all over the world, but we tend to fight the people, not the poverty,” Beegle said. “We forget there’s a human being right in front of us.”
• Laziness: Then she said there’s the misconception that people living in poverty are lazy and don’t want to work.
The reality, she said, is that labor statistics show people in poverty often work several jobs and still can’t afford things like rent.
Cortland County Legislator Michael Barylski (D-Cortlandville) said he was disheartened to hear how much hope people in poverty lose when they’ve been in that situation for so long.
“It’s almost painful to know that from her own experience and from the experience she’s had with people in poverty, that they just don’t think anybody cares about them,” he said.
He said he was interested in looking into the idea of using the community’s older population more — a concept Beegle suggested while discussing how difficult affordable child care can be for families, so they end up staying home or taking older children out of school to watch the younger ones.
The next step in the process of establishing Cortland as an Opportunity Community is getting people to sign up to be navigators, Barylski said. Navigators are trained through the Opportunity Community model to “understand different experiences of poverty, to learn the structural causes of poverty and to gain communication and relationship building skills,” according to a packet handed out at the forum.
Once trained, the navigator will help someone in poverty by sharing the contacts, networks and resources.