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Born and raised in a migrant family mired in abject poverty, Donna Beegle thought it was normal to be hungry, have basic utilities frequently turned off and be evicted from a home.

“I come from a family where everybody worked that day for food that night. The deepest poverty in this country is families who have had generations of it,” Beegle told a near-capacity audience during the first of two presentations Tuesday in the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center theater.

Beegle was married at age 15 and a mother at 17. By the time she was 26, she was divorced with two children, with only a ninth-grade education, no job skills and a growing stack of bills.

She said middle class people are astonished at her story of spending her honeymoon at age 15 in a cherry field in Washington state, telling her she was just a baby.

“When you live in the war zone of poverty at 15 you’re not a baby,” she said. “Children who grow up in poverty have the same reactions as the kids who grow up in a war zone.

“They lose their childhood,” she said.

She became the first of her family, including five brothers, to qualify for low-income housing assistance, but only after she agreed to participate in a life skills program recommended by a county aid worker.

The program changed her life, encouraging her to eventually earn her GED, then attend a community college to earn a bachelor’s degree, master’s and a doctorate in educational leadership.

Now of Tigard, Ore., she travels the country giving her firsthand story of growing up essentially homeless.

Communicating is key to helping end the cycle of generational poverty, she said. Many of those charged with helping cannot understand what poor people go through on a daily basis just to survive.

Beegle explained how generational poverty differs from other types of poverty.

Families mired in generational poverty are workers of the land, not landowners, have high rates of illiteracy and know few people who benefited from an education or advanced in life and was respected for their work.

They also move frequently while looking for work and are focused on making it day to day.

Those in working-class poverty live paycheck to paycheck, barely able to pay for basic needs, focusing on making it for two weeks or through the month.

Immigrants in poverty have few resources and must battle language and cultural barriers but often have a stronger sense of self than those in other poverty groups.

Situational poverty stems from a loss of income because of a personal or family crisis, such as a job loss, health issue or divorce occurring for someone who grew up in an otherwise stable home environment with a background of education, Beegle said. 

Those who have experienced situational poverty tend to take a harsh view of those in other poverty groups, she said.

“We’re segregated by social class in America, and that’s in urban and rural communities,” Beegle said. “Most people in this country who live middle-class lives are not sitting down to dinner with people who live in crisis.”

Beegle said the county aid worker who helped her turn her life around more than 25 years ago started with giving her reasons to believe her life could be better.

“If you are judging, you cannot connect, if you cannot connect, you cannot communicate. If you can’t communicate, how can you do your job?” she asked. “Suspending judgment requires getting more information about poverty and how it impacts our fellow human beings.”

Beegle is the author of "See Poverty ... Be the Difference," published in 2007, and is currently working with director George Rivera on an upcoming Public Broadcasting documentary, "Invisible Nation," detailing her family’s struggle with poverty.

South Dakota Labor Secretary Marcia Hultman recalled Beegle’s first visit in 2014 during her introduction.

“I was not able to attend, but Dr. Beegle’s message made waves across South Dakota,” Hultman said.

Hultman said despite South Dakota boasting one of the lowest unemployment rates and the highest rate of multiple job holders, 64,000 of the state’s citizens live below the poverty line.

“These are our family, our friends, our neighbors, and it’s essential that we meet each person exactly the same way in our daily lives and work with them to achieve that path to self-sufficiency,” Hultman said.

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