Donna Beegle grew up poor, just like her mother before her, and her grandmother before her – and there wasn’t a single one who didn’t work hard, she says.

She came from a family of hard-working cotton pickers and field hands, and all of her siblings worked, yet the family still struggled, living in a neighborhood she called "felony flats" while her parents had to choose between paying utilities or rent. 

The solution to ending generational poverty, Beegle told a group of children's advocates Thursday in Bakersfield, isn't as simple as telling them to work hard. It's getting involved and helping to raise these communities up. 

“When you’re born in the land of opportunity and see people work hard your whole life, and still see them go hungry – people born a generation ago who have been working hard and are still struggling, you see hopelessness,” Beegle said.

A homeless woman-turned-poverty expert, she offered her story Thursday at a conference organized by the Kern County Network for Children, stressing that education and skill sets are what poor people need to hoist themselves out of poverty, but having others around them who are informed about the needs of those communities is necessary first.

In Kern County, poverty runs rampant, leaving few communities untouched, including some of the region’s most vulnerable residents: kids. Roughly 34 percent of the county’s children, or about 85,000, are poor — enough to fill Disneyland to capacity.

Kern ranks fifth worst in the state for childhood poverty, and more than 6,500 kids were identified as homeless in 2014-2015, a 132 percent increase over 2007-2008, according to the Kern County Network for Children. Some communities are harder hit than others. Almost half the kids in Wasco, Lamont and Oildale experienced poverty in 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

It doesn’t have to be that way, Beegle said. The solution, Beegle said, is getting more poverty-informed and bringing together people outside of impoverished regions to lend a hand up.

She met an engineer who was retiring at 50, so she asked what he was planning to do with all that wisdom the rest of his life.

He shrugged and responded, “golf course?”

“We’ve got to use our retirement community better. Do you know what it would mean for a kid in poverty to even talk to an engineer? You’ve got to give back,” Beegle said. “We need every member of our community engaged in fighting the poverty.”

Poverty is perpetuated by isolation and segregation of underprivileged communities, Beegle said. If somebody living in a poor, cast-away neighborhood that has no higher-educational institution, and nobody in the family has graduated from college, then how can they view it as an opportunity, Beegle asked.

Breaking poverty includes breaking stereotypes, and the notion that there’s a “culture of poverty,” that informs behaviors of those without money, Beegle said.

“Stereotypes and judgment about poverty is divided. We see it as a subculture over there,” Beegle said. “But we’re all the same. There’s no such thing as a culture of poverty. Middle-class people are just as likely to cheat, steal and use drugs as people in poverty.”

Just two years ago, Utah nearly eliminated homelessness when lawmakers realized it cost about half as much to house homeless people as it did to care for those living on the streets. It drove down homelessness 91 percent, Beegle said. 

While it’s an ideal solution, unless policymakers take such measures in California, the answer must lie with community members coming together, said Beegle, who has created networks of “navigators” who help others find ways to turn their skills into jobs.

But the real key to escaping poverty, Beegle said, is education.

“The majority of (people in) poverty are already working,” Beegle said. “I talk to them about how to earn a living. That’s different. How’d you like to buy your mom a house? How’d you like to see your grandma never do without her medicine again? Get education, get skilled. That’s it. Don’t lie to people.”

​Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

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