Family resource management seeks to strengthen consumers' abilities to build and maintain economic security. Family life educators must understand the unique circumstances of families in poverty to support them and teach strategies for maximizing resources. This paper examines family resource management practices that support educators' knowledge and understanding of the support systems within the community systems that surround families living in poverty.
The number of people living in poverty in the United States is increasing at an alarming rate, up from 6.4 million (6.7 percent) in 2000 to 6.8 million (9.2 percent) in 2001 (U.S. Bureau of the Census 2001). Because social and economic class is defined by income, professionals who work with families living in poverty must be especially cognizant of the hidden rules among classes as they interact across social systems. The goal of teaching family resource management is to strengthen consumers' abilities to build and maintain economic security. Families living in poverty must focus on ways to maximize their resources to sustain them when there are resource gaps or their resources are unstable. This paper examines poverty and outlines practices that can help family life educators working in family resource management understand the multiple community systems that surround families living in poverty.
Poverty can be defined as "the extent to which an individual does without resources" (Payne 2001). This definition focuses on the individual, which brings with it a stereotype associated with families on governmental assistance. However, individuals in poverty are not the only recipients of government assistance, nor should stereotypes and prejudices be fostered about them (Payne 2001). Others within the community are dependent upon government services and assistance as well. Farm subsidies are an example of government assistance that is available to the middle- to upper-class and farming population. State and federal loan programs for students, home buyers, and entrepreneurs are other ways government provides aid to other citizens.
Families consume eight basic resources. These are available in varying quantities and poverty may still exist if these are untapped as resources. In her book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Ruby Payne (2001) outlines the basic resources that families must manage and maximize to become self-sufficient. Briefly, these resources include:
- Financial: Having the money to purchase goods and services.
- Emotional: Being able to choose and control emotional responses, particularly to negative situations, without engaging in self-destructive behavior. This is an internal resource and shows itself through stamina, perseverance, and choices.
- Mental: Having the mental abilities and acquired skills (reading, writing, computing) to deal with daily life.
- Spiritual: Believing in divine purpose and guidance.
- Physical: Having physical health and mobility.
- Support systems: Having external resources such as friends, family, and backup resources accessible in times of need.
- Relationships/role models: Having frequent access to nurturing adult(s) who interact appropriately with children and who do not engage in self-destructive behavior.
- Knowledge of hidden rules: Knowing the unspoken cues and habits of a group.
Besides understanding the array of resources available to families, educators must also understand the concept of social capital. Social capital includes social and resource networks, family and community norms, and social trust. Social capital facilitates the coordination and cooperation of resources for the mutual benefit of family members within a community (Putnam 2000). Social capital involves putting these networks and existing relationships to work to create a safety net during vulnerable times. It is evident that having a network of individuals available at a moment's notice to provide both physical and emotional support is vital. Within the culture of poverty, this network usually consists of extended family, friends, and sometimes co-workers. However, families often become disconnected from natural support mechanisms: extended family, friends, neighbors, and community structures. This is a concern when there is an erosion of social capital, central and basic resources upon which people living in poverty depend (PovertyNet 2003).
Payne's (2001) "support systems" component equates to what others (Hogan 2001) refer to as social capital. According to Payne, there is a continuum of support systems ranging from those who help individuals cope to those who provide information or even skills. For example, what support systems are engaged when helping a child with homework? Who in the support system knows enough math to help the child? Or when advocating for a child's needs, who knows how to negotiate and resolve difficult situations with a teacher, or who understands the court or school system? Information and skills put to work within social systems are crucial to self-sufficiency and family success (Payne 2001). Without helpers along the way, families falter, regardless of economic standing. Within the boundaries of poverty, it is essential that there be encouragers and interveners at every point of need.
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