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STATE AFFAIRS: Culture rather than poverty defines achievement

I have been reading a 2017 report, “Cycle of Risk: The Intersection of Poverty, Violence and Trauma” by a century-old social services organization in Chicago called the Heartland Alliance.

Since the stated objective of the organization is to end poverty, maybe it follows that the 43-page report seems to hammer away on the theme that poverty is the fount of all social pathologies.

I beg to differ. Doing so will put these scribblings in the middle of an intense, ongoing, half-century-old debate about the roles of culture and poverty in shaping our society. The Left tends to agree with the Heartland Alliance, while the Right tends to see dysfunctional culture at the family and community level as the root of poverty, not the poverty itself.

As I read the report, two families from my post World War II childhood in rural Central Illinois came immediately to mind. Please indulge me.

Bertha Hughes of LaFayette, Illinois (pop. 300) lost her young husband to a fatal heart attack in 1945, when her four children ranged in age from 13 down to 6. She was left with nothing but the family’s $500 home, which had no plumbing.

Bertha took in laundry, did sewing and scrubbed floors. She told her children once that her own earnings one year were $940. Bertha also received $15 per child per month from Social Security survivors’ benefits. Adjusted for inflation, the family’s total income would be about $17,600 today, or just barely above the “extreme poverty” category, according to the Heartland Alliance.

“We were poor,” recalls Pete Hughes, now 82, “but we didn’t know it. I guess we did know it when we were directed to pick edible dandelion leaves from a fence line on a field across from the house. This was a task I did not want – knew we were at the bottom of the barrel then. I know it was an awful time for Mother – but she persevered!”

Bertha told her children, simply: You have to work, and you have to go to college.

My friend Pete recalls working at Grimm’s grocery in LaFayette, sweeping out and stocking shelves each morning before school and on Saturdays; he and his brothers worked on farms in the summer.

A teacher told Bertha, who knew nothing of higher education, about tiny Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois. Students had to (still have to) work 15 hours a week for the college, to include even bricklaying for a new building in Pete’s day. As a result, tuition, room and board in 1954 totaled $400 a year ($3,747 in today’s dollars).

The three Hughes boys went to Blackburn. And they all achieved. PhD Pete is a retired, beloved school superintendent. John became an orthopedic surgeon (he drove a Chicago Transit Authority bus during medical school to help pay tuition at the University of Illinois medical school). Their sister Julia manages a successful law firm. And in turn, their children are doctors, veterinarians, dean of an engineering college, and more.

Over in the neighboring town of Toulon (pop. 1,200 then and now), where I grew up, Joe and Dora Harrington reared their five children in quiet modesty. Joe worked for the town’s water and sewer department, and Dora stayed home. The family went religiously, you might say, to the Baptist Church. The children all became model citizens.

Sara Jane attended Illinois Wesleyan University and authored a book about her husband, a distinguished general. In 1945, the high school held its first homecoming celebration, and Dave Harrington was elected “king” by his fellow students.

The Harringtons were the sole African-American family in Toulon.

Anecdotal illustrations are powerful, but they don’t prove anything, of course. And more money is better than little money in a household. Yet these cases show that poverty alone is not a bar to achievement. Family, community, church, attitude are more important.

Sure, things have changed. I am guessing there are fewer jobs around for young people now. And poverty is much more concentrated than it was then; my illustrations are from middle-class farm towns.

And the family has changed. The culture of the post-war period offered little room for divorce. Many couples suffered through hideous relationships, I’m sure, because of good old-fashioned peer pressure, and until the kids were through school.

And there are also success stories today in high-poverty neighborhoods. One of the brightest students I ever had, this one at Knox College, was an African-American who was reared in a Chicago housing project by her determined, loving grandmother. This former student is now a professor at a college in the East.

I also had a white, young-adult student assistant at Knox, who had three children. She became the partner of a black woman. The couple reared my student’s three children nicely, went to graduate school, and the couple are now professors.

I worry nevertheless that policymakers and social service providers put way too much emphasis today on the deleterious impact of poverty, which can itself become an excuse for not achieving. Instead, we need to focus on strengthening the family and community, and on creating positive cultural values in benighted communities.

JIM NOWLAN is a former Illinois legislator, agency director and aide to three governors. He also was lead author of "Illinois Politics: A Citizen's Guide" (University of Illinois Press, 2010). Nowlan can be reached at

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