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'Bridges Out of Poverty': Professionals study ways to change social situations

Jodi Pfarr, a consultant with aha!process.Inc., describes Friday for about 300 social workers and other professionals strategies for helping people move out of poverty during a seminar at Evangelical Covenant Church. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

People coming from generations of poverty live with different mindsets than middle class people. And professionals aiming to help improve poor people's lives must understand the poverty perspective.

That is the theme of "Bridges Out of Poverty," a seminar Jodi Pfarr presented to about 300 social services and other helping professionals Friday at Evangelical Covenant Church. The presentation, based on Ruby Payne's "A Framework for Understanding Poverty," contrasts the mental models and coping skills people have living in poverty with the mental models for middle class people, especially those in the helping professions.

For example, Pfarr said, middle class people project into the future, but people in poverty survive day by day living in the present. Consequently, goals such as retirement savings and education, which are important to middle class people, are not part of poor people's thinking.

Pfarr referred to "agency time," the amount of time and energy people in poverty have to spend filling out forms and standing in line seeking assistance. She also referred to the "life cycle" of poverty when problems are more complicated and connected and tasks take longer than for middle class people.

For example, if a middle class person's car won't start, he or she calls AAA and the problem can be contained. A poor person would have to call a friend or relative for a ride and bundle the children he or she is caring for into the car, along with the damp clothes he or she had picked up at the Laundromat. The rescuer might miss an appointment because of giving the friend a ride, or he or she might have car trouble, too.

"Problems are interlocking; there's no expectation that you will get from Point A to Point B uninterrupted," she said. "In middle class the transportation issue is just that, a transportation issue."

To help people move from poverty into more stable lives, Pfarr urged professionals not to focus on what is good for their agency, but on the customers. Nor is it helpful for the professional to identify the poor person's problem and try and fix it with a quick solution.

She said the ways to help people cross the "Bridge Out of Poverty" include recognizing that poor people are problem solvers and respecting them for those skills. Stabilizing the environment, providing support during the transition and bringing together people across class lines are also strategies for change under the "Bridges" model.