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Paul Clolery Headshot

Are There No Prisons?

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When are those single mothers going to learn that they need to get a third job to get themselves and their children out of poverty? Maybe if that guy across the street had stayed in school he would be employed. If you really want to work, you can find a job and pull yourself up from poverty.

Yes, those are all incredibly uninformed, insensitive and stupid statements. But apparently there are Americans who still don't understand that poverty most often is not the individual's fault. The blame for that misunderstanding (since blame seems to be at the root of some of the conjecture) can be placed on the doorsteps of every nonprofit working to feed, shelter and help lift people out of their situations.

Charles Dickens mockingly suggested imprisoning the impoverished in A Christmas Carol. And it appears as if many Americans have a long way to go before their Dickens-written, Ebenezer Scrooge-like, Mr. Magoo-played awakening.

According to a new report from The Salvation Army, some 49.1 million Americans -- that's one in six -- live in poverty. That survey found that 27 percent of those polled believe that those living in poverty are there because they are lazy and 29 percent responded that the poor usually have lower moral values. As for that earlier statement that if you want a job you can find one, 43 percent of those polled said that they believed that notion.

Unemployment at this writing is officially 8.1 percent but everyone knows the number is much greater. Yet, people still believe anyone can have a job at this very minute. Maybe if those single parents didn't have to work two jobs then the minimum wage positions could be spread around a little more and everybody could have one. After all, 49 percent of people polled by The Salvation Army believe that a good work ethic is all you need to escape poverty.

Polling is often put in the field with questions that are skewed to obtain a certain set of answers. It's the old question of: "Have you stopped beating your dog?" If you say "yes," that means you did in fact beat the pooch. If you say "no," that means you are still beating man's best friend. Loaded questions get you nowhere.

In the case of this Salvation Army survey, the responses are stunning even if the questions were loaded. It means the messages being sent out by the charitable sector are not getting through to the general public. While those polled said they understood that giving a hand-up is important, a really good percentage are holding their noses with the other hand.

The message that we are one society, one America, one world, is obviously not rooted deeply enough. Millions of people have "cold water flat" stories of how they left the old neighborhood and became affluent. They are nice stories. When you roll the dice you can sometimes come up with sevens or you can crap out.

America's social service agencies need to do a better job of getting the message out that anyone, anywhere, at any time can roll snake eyes. While social media is important and significantly less expensive, more outreach needs to be done community-by-community. That means everything from a speech at a civic club luncheon (a place where there is food) to editorial board meetings with local print media outlets whose products lay around the house for a few days.

Poverty often is treated in the big picture. But to those living there, it is small picture and very intimate. Whether it is hunger, shelter or education, local organizations need to get their board members hip deep in outreach to others connected in the community. That's the old fashioned social network.

This column originally appeared in The NonProfit Times (www.thenonprofittimes.com)