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Broke Phi Broke

Poverty is about more than money


Listening to the Kanye West CD College Dropout, you can hear the skit about an imaginary minority fraternity of homeboys who "ain't got it." The "it" is money, and in the skit the guys have come to the realization that a life without money is one with out joy. Common people know this is a skit and that the frat doesn't exist, but the way these guys talk about being broke is well understood by many. What West subliminally says is that being broke, poor or close to the edge is harming to your self-esteem.

We live in a world that says each day lived poor is a disgraced life, one with no hope, a life outside the realm of the American Dream. We rarely talk about or display the poor with any semblance of integrity or dignity; even in many places of worship we quantify being blessed with having material wealth.

The poor are seen as lazy, jobless drains on society who don't want better for themselves. We package our poor in the news and in mainstream society as worthless, only deserving of whatever emotional or physical loose change we are able to spare.

I don't think I was poor growing up but I wasn't rich either. Being the son of a single mom who was a teacher, I knew we had to pinch pennies, but somehow I never wanted for anything. I had the bike when I wanted it -- it might have been late and not as cool as the other bikes, but I had one. I had Nikes when I went to school -- they weren't Jordans but I could polish the "swoosh" and keep moving with everyone else. Despite the fortune of being the son of a mother who busted her butt to make sure we were taken care of, I still suffered emotionally because of both the ridicule of others and my personal understanding of not being materially privileged.

My favorite TV show growing up was The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I would argue with my mother every night to let me stay up and watch Fresh Prince and Blossom, the show that came on afterward. Inherent in Fresh Prince was its message of rags to riches, both materially and emotionally. The premise of the show was that until Will was moved to the suburbs, he had no hope; he was on a path to destruction. Our communities are filled with "Wills" who live in poverty, who are told every day and shown every day that they have no hope.

It doesn't end at adolescence. As a PDA-carrying banker, I see the song and dance every day downtown. We all seek to equate our personal virtue with the importance of our job or the image that being a professional may carry. Whether it is a conversation about where we went to school or asking a someone who is flirting with you what he or she does for a living, we sneak class privilege into our conversations without realizing it. So much of the way we judge ourselves and other people stems from either growing up or being conditioned to hate being poor.

So in this world, what do young people who are poor have to look forward to? They are embryos in a system that has laid out their future for them, largely one of nothingness and continuous struggle. Young people should know that you can be poor and lead a meaningful life of integrity and continuous growth. In many ways, allowing poverty in America is outside the ideals this nation was founded on. Many of our poor people aren't free, they are trapped in a cycle of poverty that in large part won't change. A child born into poverty today has no more chance to get out of it than a child born in any other time in history.

I am not saying all poor people are persecuted or void of fault. What I'm saying is we have a collective accountability to the poor -- to not allow the politics of representation to continue to attach any more or less virtue to the kid living in Eastover than the kid in Grier Heights.

Decker Ngongang, a native of Charlotte, is a financial professional and committed citizen.

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