ThinkFest Recap: 3 Takeaways From Otis Bullock Jr. on Generational Poverty

“It takes five generations to reverse the advantages or disadvantages that you have at birth.”

Otis Bullock Jr. still remembers the first time he understood the depths of the poverty that he was born into in North Philadelphia.

It was 1996, and Bullock was getting ready to start his freshmen year at West Chester University. He was there thanks to an academic scholarship the school awarded him, making him the first person in his family to ever attend college. It was an inspiring moment in Bullock’s journey, which was recounted in Philadelphia magazine writer Steve Volk’s acclaimed feature on generational poverty. But he quickly realized a depressing truth: just because he had broken through a personal barrier didn’t mean he was on equal footing with his fellow students.

“I came to West Chester University with a duffel bag. That’s all I had,” Bullock told Farrah Jimenez,,the president of the Philadelphia Education Fund, during a Q&A at ThinkFest on Tuesday. “And I see all of my peers. Their parents were there with them. They’re unloading televisions, they’re unloading video games. They’re set for the year. They have everything they need. Honestly, I didn’t realize how poor I was until that moment, until I realized how much of a disadvantage that I was working at just from being poor.”

As the executive director of Diversified Community Services, Bullock now gets to help both parents and children in low-income neighborhoods build better lives, to get on a path where they can hopefully realize their dreams just as he did. He talked at length at ThinkFest about the challenges facing the 26 percent of Philadelphians who live in crushing poverty. Here are some highlights:

1. There are no quick fixes. Bullock discussed the uncomfortable truth that lurks behind the beloved formula of the American Dream: Hard work doesn’t necessarily lead to financial success. “The reality is that if you’re born poor, the likelihood that your children will be poor is highly likely. And the same, vice versa, if you’re born wealthy,” he said. “In fact, the Brookings Institution has a study that says it takes five generations to reverse the advantages or disadvantages that you have at birth. So if you’re born poor, even if you do everything right, it’s probably going to take you five generations to get out of that situation.”

2. Point your finger in the right direction. “When you talk about generational poverty, I need folks to understand that one thing we can’t do is blame the victim,” Bullock said. “We do have systems set up to actually keep people poor. And we’ve got to start to address those systems, and we’ve got to start to change those systems. And when it comes to government funding on the local, state and federal level, I think we also have to change how we think about addressing poverty, and think about how we fund these different systems.”

3. Creative partners are wanted. Part of Diversified Community Service’s aim is to put local parents in a better position to support their families. Bullock said the organization needs partners to help them reach that goal. “What we’re looking for right now are employers where we can create a pipeline for our parents to increase their income. We really need to give folks a chance,” he said. “So if you are an employer, or you know a number of employers, please send them our way.”

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