When fighting poverty, listen to the impoverished


November 7, 2019

Editor’s note: CHN guest blogger James Abro is the author of six novels and three books including, most recently, Facing Homelessness. A lifelong social activist, Abro started Advocate for Economic Fairness! in order to give voice to those working for a fairer and more progressive economy. He also works locally in New York City with homeless outreach groups and nationally as an advocate for homeless rights and economic fairness. You can learn more about his work at about.me/james.abro

Last month the United Nations invited Ashana Bullet and Eduardo Simas to speak at a conference entitled “Perspectives on Poverty.” Bullet and Simsas are both members of ATD Fourth World, an international non-profit organization dedicated to finding and eradicating the root causes of poverty. Bullet is a lifelong resident of New Orleans; Simas owns and manages a farm in rural Brazil.

Bullet discussed what happened in New Orleans following the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. She said the hurricane’s aftermath demonstrated the way policies designed to help poor people can, in fact, exacerbate their problems and make emergency resources less available to them. She cited several examples, including that a significant percentage of the city’s population did not make over an $18,000 annual income, the cut-off for accessing basic services and necessities. Construction work to rebuild New Orleans excluded too many native New Orleans residents who belonged to trade unions. The decision-making process on how to rebuild school and health care infrastructures were made by outside experts, not residents.

As a result of this, more than 100,000 former New Orleans residents were unable to return to the city. In many cases rents became unaffordable and community-based services were replaced with unfamiliar alternatives. In short, it no longer felt and looked like the New Orleans residents once cherished, plus now they could no longer afford to live in this new facsimile. One life-long resident caught in this predicament described it as “Going from getting hit by a hurricane to getting buried in a perfect shit storm.”

Years after Hurricane Katrina, thousands of New Orleans ex-residents still can’t return to their home city. Photo credit: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Simas also spoke about how the eroding of community values by modern models of poverty eradication too often leave native populations even more impoverished — not just economically, but culturally. Simas made this point based on his experience: “Too often we have seen policies, development projects and even programs to fight poverty that do not take into account what already exists locally. As a result, community links are weakened, solidarity networks are dismantled, and natural resources are exhausted, leaving people more vulnerable in the long term. It is not just getting people and communities involved in such projects, but it is supporting them in building their own ways to overcome the challenges.”

Also based on his experience he offered this poignant observation: “Coming from a society where we learn to keep for ourselves, to save, to accumulate, the concept I learned from community members — ‘it is because we give that we have’ — is an innovative way to redefine what wealth is and to truly build a shared economy based on healthy relationships and collective reciprocity.”

I am a writer as well as a member of ATD Fourth World. I experience this among many of the “liberal progressive” publications I write for. They invite contributions from people like myself who have experienced poverty and even homelessness. But in the end, when it comes to advising and implementing policy for eradicating poverty, they still revert to their experts who usually do not have any practical experience of this issue.

It’s a work in progress, folks.

For more information on the ATD Fourth World grass-roots approach to tackling the root causes of global poverty, please check out their website.