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There’s a saying ... when you know better, you do better.

Since the official end of American slavery, the problem of a disproportionate poverty rate among black Americans has remained a persistent social problem in the United States. With poverty rates of 20% or higher for blacks in 43 states and 35% or higher in Iowa, Maine, Mississippi and Wisconsin, African-Americans are also more likely than whites to experience hardships that are often connected to poverty, including over-incarceration and inconsistent employment.

We have all heard that the poor and minorities need only make better choices — work hard, stay in school, get married, do not have children before they can afford them. If they did all this, they wouldn’t be poor. This is an example of a simplistic view toward a complex social problem. It is minimizing the impact of a societal issue caused by structure on individuals’ behavior. People don't choose to be poor.

Americans have one of the most independent cultures on earth. We have freedom of speech and freedom of choice. As Americans we, more often than not, define people in terms of internal attributes such as choices, abilities, values, preferences, decisions and traits. A direct consequence of this mindset is that it becomes easy to ignore all the historical conditions, such as slavery, segregation and discrimination that contribute to certain outcomes. When we ignore the historical context, it is easier to instead attribute an unfavorable outcome, such as poverty, to the person.

Many Americans view poverty as an individual phenomenon and say that it’s primarily "their own fault" that people are poor. When identified as African-Americans, individuals are blamed for their poverty and solutions don’t include structural explanations. There is a tendency to overemphasize individual responsibility. Our culture does this to the point that it ignores the effect of root causes shaped by society and beyond the control of the individual.

Switch the lens. The alternative view is that poverty is a structural phenomenon. From this viewpoint, people are in poverty because they find themselves in holes in the economic system that delivers them inadequate income.

When progress is halted, it’s not because we lack the solutions to our problems. People don’t go hungry because we don’t know how to grow food. Children don’t die because we lack cures to common diseases. Schools don’t fail because we don’t know how to provide a quality education. We face these and other challenges, as unique as they are, for a similar reason: because we lack the kind of inclusive, ethical thought process that can channel a people’s will into progress that benefits everyone. We need diverse perspectives that can help us question and change our current ways of thinking. We need more advocates who are willing to challenge systems of oppression and ensure that potential is met with opportunity, regardless of race or gender, culture or creed, orientation or belief.

I am convinced that the biggest reason for poverty is how society is structured. Without structural changes, it may be very difficult if not impossible to eliminate disparities and poverty. Some societal issues, such as racism and bias, constantly cause disparities in education, employment and income for marginalized groups. The majority group naturally has a head start, relative to groups that deal with a wide range of societal barriers on a daily basis.

I believe all our lives could be improved if we considered the structural influences as root causes of social problems such as poverty and inequality. Perhaps then, we could more easily agree on solutions. Now that you know better ... do better.

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Tracy White is director of the African-American Leadership Society for the United Way of the Quad-Cities. She’s been a community volunteer and runs a mentoring program called Well Suited. Voices of the Quad-Cities, a weekly column featuring local writers, runs on Tuesdays.

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