University of Arkansas System
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Poverty in America
Poverty is an epidemic that has swept the American nation many times over. Whether it be quietly lingering under the surface, or blatantly staring us in the face as it is in this current recession, it affects people across America on individual, community and national levels alike. While there are many causes and effects of poverty, it is important to view the issue of poverty and its causes from all angles when one seeks to tackle the problem. These factors include socio-economic status, mental illness, family values and work ethics, to name a few. In this essay, I will be examining these factors as they are discussed in the book, The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls (referred to as Glass Castle throughout essay), as well as in the article Poverty in America from the Congressional Digest, December 2010 (referred to as Census throughout the essay).
When children are born into poverty, it is the only life they know. They often grow up to either see life from the viewpoint of, “that’s just the way it is,” or become determined to better their status when they are old enough to do so. Children don’t often realize they live in poverty until they are told by their peers, such as when they are called poor and see people taking pity on them or make fun of them. They may also realize they are different when they are exposed to what other people have and realize that they have much less. As noted in Poverty in America, poverty level, in itself, is merely based on an income deficit, whereas one’s household receives less money than another; it also relates to the standard of living (Census, pg. 300). When one has less income, less things are afforded, however living within those means will often create or hide the barrier that is poverty.
While one family may learn to utilize their resources effectively and appropriate funds where they belong, another will attempt to make fast money such as through crime or gambling. As in the story of the Glass Castle, the father spends the money the family has on gambling, sometimes paying off and spending the money on lavish dinners out and treats; other times they are deeper in poverty since gambling funds are not the most stable income (Glass Castle, p. Living in Las Vegas).
Addictions and mental illness have impacted the nation and led many families into poverty. While not directly discussed in the article, it may be presumed that these issues play a role in keeping people from holding jobs, working full time and gain the skills necessary to find gainful employment. The article cites work experience and less-than-full-time workers as being affected by increased poverty rates, especially in this recent economic downturn. Additionally, whereas it was normal for a single mother to stay home and care for her children in the 1950’s when the poverty census was first started, it is expected now for single parents to work and better their economic status for the well-being of their family. With the costs of daycare and living skyrocketing since the 50’s, women sometimes seek easier means of making money and still staying at home, including prostitution and drug dealing. Many of these women were also sexually abused and preyed upon because of their economic status and other issues affecting their childhood, which may lead to substance abuse in adolescence and early adulthood.
Sexual abuse was a prominent theme in the Glass Castle, as the parents were very hands-off and flighty, leaving the children exposed to predators and even victim to family members. While Jeanette’s parents felt that the children will only become stronger by facing hardship, these factors will often cause self-esteem, trauma, depression and anxiety in children who grow up into alcohol and drug abusing adults; this may also begin the poverty cycle for generations to come.
The cycle of poverty being exacerbated by drug and alcohol use is first noted in the Glass Castle with insight into Rex’s drinking problems. While he has attempts at periods of sobriety, he always returns to the bottle. It is apparent that he has dreams of grandeur, always telling the children that they will one day live in a glass castle, going so far as to build blueprints. He is a self-proclaimed inventor and thinks very highly of his skills and self, but is constantly losing jobs and sweeping the family away to avoid the law. While he has the emotional support of his family, he is battling his own demons of feeling like a failure, leading him to steal his wife’s money, gamble profusely and even takes steps toward selling his own daughter for a quick buck (Glass Castle, pg. rex takes to bar to play pool, win money back). He also seeks the comfort of a prostitute, probably to have the company of someone who makes him feel better about himself (Glass Castle, pg.
Brian tells Jeanette about reading comic while Rex/Ginger were in hotel). It’s also interesting to examine the impact of the sexual abuse Rex may have been exposed to as a child by his mother, which could have been the start to his cycle of living in a dream-world, using alcohol and low self-esteem (pg. when they tell Rex Erma tried to molest Brian and wonder if he was abused).
Beyond addiction issues, mental health problems were also a focus of the Glass Castle, as it appears that Mary was, deep inside, a solid person with a good family upbringing, an education and was probably capable of being a good mother. Unfortunately, she was an “excitement addict” (Glass Castle, pg. inherited house in phoenix) and even gave up her teaching job to be an artist (Glass Castle, p. Mary returns from Bluefield), even though her children were starving. She also followed her husband through all of these adventures, partaking in all the excitement and neglect/abuse of the children, seemingly oblivious to any wrongdoing. Following the periods of excitement addiction, she would have depressed moods, staying in bed and complaining of the burden of raising a family and missing out on her chance to be an artist (Glass Castle, p. when they find diamond ring).
It would appear to me that, while Mary has her times of trying to do what’s best for her family, she may be suffering from a mental illness, such as bipolar disorder, making choices that are mostly selfish to fulfill her fun and excitement; she also makes very poor financial choices for her family, such as not selling the million-dollar property to feed her family (Glass Castle, pg. Mary wants to borrow money from Eric to buy adjacent land) and not using money from work to stick with a budget so that food and indoor plumbing and coal can be bought (Glass Castle, pg. Mary is teaching and Lori and Jeanette make a budget and ask to hold money). In addition, mental illness is often thought to be genetic, with some syndromes passing through generations. While most of the children in the Walls family eventually become successful adults with seemingly normal lives, Maureen adapts some of the characteristics of her parents, ultimately ending up living a bizarre life of chasing cults and getting locked up in a state hospital (Glass Castle, p. Maureen stabs Mary).
Family values play a large role in bringing, and keeping, people in poverty;
especially families. Although there have been separate social classes throughout history, values and work ethics are two factors that can change over time and create a different outcome of values and ethics. Through the article, the reader learns that recessions have caused disparities at different levels since the census began recording this material in 1959 (Census, p. 298). While each recession has differed slightly, the length and severity of increased poverty has happened in different extents, leading one to believe that the values/ethics of the time may be affecting how people handle changes in their economic situations; how families handle ongoing poverty over generations will also determine the overall success of that family coming out of poverty or remaining in it.
The work ethics and values were definitely confused throughout the Glass Castle, with Rex having a history of serving in the Air Force and Mary being educated in teaching and falling back on that from time to time, barely keeping the metaphoric family head above water. There is also question about the values that are being taught to the children; where one parent proclaims to be a devout catholic that doesn’t attend church or follow the commandments and another parent despises and puts down the religion. Other family values that the children are exposed to include shoplifting (Glass Castle, p. where they steal dresses and get caught) and stealing from the bank (Glass Castle, p. where dad and mom are stealing money), as well as stealing lunches at school and dumpster diving; all of this yet Mary refuses to even consider government aid when the idea is mentioned, presenting herself as better than that. Also, family traditions that the children see other people participating are often ruined (Glass Castle, p. where dad lights tree on fire) and the family learns to deal with it by just understanding there is nothing they can do.
Hope still remains for those in poverty. We know that, economically, everything that goes up must come down, and when it comes to the economy, the opposite is likely to occur as well. As the Census shows us on p. 298, while poverty levels have dropped and risen over the past five decades, they do resume along with the economy and each person in poverty still has a chance at changing their situation if they work hard enough. The coping skills that people learn when they live a life of poverty to effectively live within their means prioritize can make or break the future options they have before them.
As the Walls children show us, one can change their future when they put their mind to it. The children lived through so many experiences of suffering and neglect, and were always trying to help their parents get it together so they could have a better life. While the children learned to cope with their parent’s ways, they also were intelligent and ambitious, and having been taught to dream, they were able to imagine a better future and a higher standard of living. While poverty has been an ongoing issue, there are many causes and facto s associated with this social construct, and many ways to overcome it. In this essay, which combined poverty information from the 2010 Census and the book, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, the effects of mental illness, addiction, family values and work ethics on poverty were discussed and examined. The overall conclusion of this writer would be that poverty can be overcome as long as individuals are willing to help themselves and their dependents and overcome the obstacles that they face in order to create a better outcome.
1.Congressional Digest (December, 2010). Poverty in America: Census Population Report. Retrieved April 1, 2011 from www.congressionaldigestdebates.com. 2.Walls, J. (2005) The Glass Castle: A Memoir. New York, Simon & Schuster.