A fresh perspective on the dynamics of poverty

Dr. C. Nicole Mason’s objective in writing Born Bright is “to offer a fresh perspective on the dynamics of poverty that have long been concealed by grandiose narratives of American exceptionalism promoted by liberals and conservatives alike.” Mason asserts that many Americans believe that all things are possible for people as long as they work hard enough and have unlimited perseverance to overcome all odds. According to this narrative, she says, when people fail to attain success, it’s their own fault because they haven’t tried hard enough.

Mason rejects that narrative outright while pointing to sobering statistics – only about 4 percent of people born into poverty, or in the bottom 20 percent of Americans economically, will ever become one of the top fifth of U.S. income earners.

As an African American child born to a single mother and into poverty, Mason and her family moved repeatedly, for various reasons, from one California town or city to another. As a result, Mason never stayed for long in one school, and the schools she attended were mostly substandard or failing schools. Still, Mason strove to overcome these obstacles. A bright child, she was curious about many subjects and understood the importance of education, at least until she began to rebel as a teenager. Even then, she kept returning to a vision of a better life and knew that education was one of the doors to its attainment. To her credit, Mason was the first person in her family to graduate from high school, go to university and eventually earn a PhD. Today, Mason is the Executive Director of the Center for Research and Policy in the Public Interest. 

Uneven realities 
In her role as a policy maker, Mason asks, “Why, in a nation overflowing with riches and teeming with opportunity, are the odds of escaping poverty on par with the odds of being struck by lightning?” In this part memoir, part analysis of U.S. poverty and how it is exacerbated by racial and ethnic discrimination, Mason shows how hard it is “to navigate systems and structures designed for the success of the few rather than the many.” As a woman who knows firsthand what it is to be a poor girl, she seeks to explain why not everyone escapes poverty like she did.

According to Mason, expectations for a child’s place in life – how much they will accomplish and how far they will go – are often marked out for a child before they can think for themselves. Her circumstances pointed to “a low bar of success,” as it did for most children born into poverty and who are members of racial or ethnic minorities. For those children “messages of success, opportunity and fairness in the larger society are often in conflict with the harsh and uneven realities of our daily lives. From the beginning, we internalize the idea that we are less than others are and that to strive for more is to chase an out-of-reach dream.”

As one reads about all Mason has experienced – hunger, privations, neglect, sexual and physical abuse, discrimination because of race and gender, violence at home and at school, teenage pregnancies amongst her peers (many just 13 years old), destruction caused by drug trafficking in her home and on the street, the death of relatives and peers because of gun violence – one can’t help but cheer her on. Mason’s lucid writing, employing captivating dialogue and sensitive descriptions of her most excruciatingly painful experiences, doesn’t succumb to self-pity or easy answers.

This reader was very disappointed and disturbed by the role a local church played in Mason’s life. Instead of being the place of refuge she had hoped it would be, she realized that, while the minister lived in a lavish house and enjoyed vast material benefits, he urged his congregation – made up of many poor, single mothers – to give to his church so that one day they would be blessed by God and become rich. He preached the prosperity gospel instead of the good news of Jesus Christ. Mason decided to leave the church because it seemed that “God was becoming harder and harder to please. I wasn’t seeing any improvement at home. My prayers and chastity were not working. It was still hell. I decided to save myself.”

May we do better as we encounter people who need rescue, and as we confront systems of oppression that need to be changed so injustice is no longer allowed to flourish.

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