NCCAP: The Challenge Poverty Presents to All of Us

At North Central Community Action Program, Inc. (NCCAP) we work with low-income individuals and families who face multiple challenges in their lives. This is not a new concept for our organization or for any Community Action Agency. Low-income people as a whole have many obstacles to overcome. Whether it is limited income, housing and homelessness, health issues, mental health diagnoses, issues caused by victimization or dysfunctional family dynamics low-income people have many issues that impact their lives and make life challenging. These challenges make providing services challenging as well.

At NCCAP our mission is to act as an advocate, provider, and facilitator of programs and services for low-income individuals in Lincoln, Marathon, and Wood Counties (Wisconsin). NCCAP seeks to create opportunities for people and communities to obtain skills, identify, and utilize resources and explore innovative options necessary to reduce poverty and increase self-sufficiency. As far as missions go, we feel that this mission is a good one. Our Board of Directors adopted this mission and it is appropriate for our organization. Our mission meets national performance standards for a mission statement in the Community Action world and provides guidance and direction for the services we provide to our clients. We take pride in our approach to working with low-income people and this has been the case since we first began as an organization in 1966.

In our region, state and nation we participate in housing and homelessness coalitions, hunger coalitions and other collaborations to identify and address issues that impact low-income people. We work with others to seek solutions to addressing these issues and also attempt to be creative in looking at new and innovative approaches. All of this takes time and requires community conversations where we work with many others to find solutions that engage the people we work with in a way that embraces the concepts of Community Action.

The challenges that we all face are much more difficult to address because they are personal. These are the challenges that we ourselves bring to the equation of working with low-income populations and those living in poverty. This is the challenge of our own views, our values and our own personal beliefs and biases. The personal part of our view of poverty and our own beliefs about low-income people … these are the challenges that can effect our approach to providing services in a non-judgmental way. Research has shown that all of us draw some type of conclusion about another person within 8 seconds. This conclusion is almost cemented in our minds and is very difficult to erase. This can be the case no matter the circumstances or situations and what contributes to this is our own view of the world, our personal beliefs, values and our own upbringing and experiences. Unfortunately education, training and professional development cannot always overtake our personal views that influence our thoughts on the subject of poverty.

This personal mindset plays a key role as to how we feel about poverty and low-income people as a whole. There are so many times where we may let our personal values or beliefs creep into our thoughts about the people we work with and are there to assist. As stated earlier we draw conclusions very quickly. It is easy to do. Think about any number of situations working with the people that seek services. Often we may ask ourselves questions about their motivation, we wonder about the decisions that people have made or compare their thought process to how we would have thought about something. It is so easy to do yet that approach presents the trap of value judgments. It leads to a view that the other person is wrong or didn’t think it through correctly. We determine that they are potentially misguided and making a poor choice. This approach clouds our ability to help people plan for themselves and make the decisions that they need to make on their own behalf because we are thinking they made a mistake, did something wrong or that their decision-making was flawed.

But to be effective advocates and service providers who work with people it is our obligation to help people determine their own course. There are times, obviously, when we need to protect someone who might be a danger to themselves or others, but overall, our role is help the person find their own way, to be self-directed, free from judgment and criticism. The challenge is how we think about the people we work with and the issues they struggle with. The old saying of putting yourself in the shoes of another person is really applicable to this line of thinking. Imagine your life, imagine your personal circumstances and situations and then begin meeting with someone who might not know you very well and they are there to help you. We all make decisions every day. How would it feel to have that person question, judge and wonder about your decisions?

This is the challenge that poverty presents to all of us…our own values, beliefs and attitudes. Darlane Cuhna, in a recent article in The Washington Post wrote that “poverty is a circumstance, not a value judgement.” Addressing poverty needs to start with ourselves first. When we can do this we can become more effective as service providers.

Please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss any of this further. I can be reached at jsargent@nccapinc.com.

Jeff Sargent
Executive Director
North Central Community Action Program, Inc.