The Soul of the Poor: Social Work and the Wholeness of Humanity


By Terry Jones, California State University, East Bay


This article reflects on the use of the word “poor” and an introduction of the term “soul” as a missing factor for consideration in social work practice. The examination of “soul” allows for a more complete understanding of the wholeness of the humanity we seek to serve. This article is a reminder that words continue to be powerful and that they impact significantly social work practice at the micro, mezzo and macro levels. With all of our calls for social justice and fairness social workers are reminded that we must constantly be on guard not to stereotype or dehumanize low-income populations that we have pledged to assist by using words such as “poor” against them. This is something we all profess to know, but often in the haste of our work, we forget.

After more than 40 years as a social work practitioner and educator, I continue to be concerned about how we in the profession use the word “poor” to describe low-income people. I know that the word is generally used as shorthand for low-income, that it is useful in describing a societal problem, and that it is helpful in funding appeals.

Nonetheless, the word “poor” is troubling to me in the one-dimensional and depersonalized way that we most often use it. Surely we know that there is more to a low-income person than economic status. How much wealth a person has is important, but certainly the essence of our being transcends money and economic status. I believe that by viewing low-income people as poor, we dehumanize and detach them from the non-poor. To me, the term is pejorative and introduces an element of blame. Labeling low-income persons as “poor” also is a way of distancing the rest of us from the humanity and circumstances of the low-income. In my estimation, it makes it easier to find fault in those who, for societal reasons, happen to be low-income. In addition to separating and dividing, using the label “poor” is a way the upper classes project their own unworthiness, i.e., their own sense of unworthiness by discarding, abusing and blaming low-income people. Furthermore, using the label “poor” allows them to disguise and reject their responsibility for the circumstances that they have created to cause these economic and structural problems in the first place.

Throughout history, the low-income have been disparaged. Even the Christian Bible was used against them. Surely those with wealth were favored by God, and those who were poor must have reached their status because of sin or other un-Christianly flaws. During the 1600s, in Elizabethan England, the poor were categorized and provided on the basis of their “worthy” or “unworthy status.” While religion certainly influenced these labels, politics and maintaining the social order were also determinants.

Much, much later, and with so much hope, President Kennedy came into office with a bold idea of waging a war on poverty. His “war” was, in part, based on the ideas put forth by Michael Harrington in his book, The Other America (1962). Throughout the book, Harrington liberally used the word “poor” to refer to low-income people, but he also introduced the idea that the poor were victims of societal indifference. In an important way, Harrington both humanizes the low-income, that is, these are real human beings, and there are larger forces in society causing their poverty. In effect, his “discovery” of the “poor” and placing blame beyond them to the economic, political and cultural systems made visible and human what had been hidden and inhumane.

Making a long story short, Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson picked up the gauntlet, and moved forward with the “war on poverty.” Politics, war and a serious downturn in the economy all worked to derail his efforts to end poverty. Right-wing Republicans, first led by Nixon and then Reagan and his “Southern Strategy,” found a way to take advantage of the situation by popularizing the notion that no-one was looking out for hardworking white taxpayers. In their conservative minds, big-spending Washington liberals and welfare pimps were responsible for hardworking white males losing economic ground in American society. A picture was painted that stereotyped and demonized the low-income and blamed them for the ills of society.

Skillfully, one characteristic of low-income people has been globalized, and they are now seen by this non-changeable lone characteristic, i.e., poverty. The low-income person is now bad, flawed, criminal, without merit and un-redemptive. He/she is committed for life to this immutable characteristic. Either consciously or subconsciously, those in positions of power and authority fail to acknowledge the changeability of the conditions that cause poverty. Instead, they blame the low-income for conditions that are mostly beyond their control. It may be that the old children’s chant, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” was wrong. Words are very powerful, and we in the helping profession must continually be on guard, especially with the word “poor.”

In this article, I attempt to recognize both the significance of what it means to be low-income and to look beyond this condition to a completeness, strength and humanity that binds us beyond our economic status. Beyond the stark realities of poverty and deprivation that leaves both psychological and physical scars is the soul of low-income people. Yes, I want to talk about the concept of soul. Soul is the emotional, moral and holistic essence of a person. The term came into prominence during the Black consciousness movement of the 1960s, but it can be traced to the thinking of W. E. B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and to Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth (1961).

In life, whether through family socialization, culture, just living or a combination of all of these, we learn how to deal with the good, the bad and the ugly of life. Some have more resources, and the learning is made less difficult. However, there are those who travel the rough roads of life and are exposed to dehumanizing difficulties beyond imagination. From these people, soul is most likely to surface as a source, a strategy for life, a coping mechanism. People in this condition might say, “You might treat me like a dog but I refuse to be one.” Or, it may surface as it does in the hauntingly beautiful poem by Maya Angelou, “You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies, you may tread me in the very dirt, but still I rise.”

Soul is resistance; it is a refusal to be defined. It is never letting them see you sweat; it is an insistence on existing as a human, of wanting to have your soul seen. Soul is a complex combination of elements including spirituality, resilience, courage and creativity.

In grasping the essence of soul, it is imperative to understand that this illusive quality is built upon more tangible attributes. These include, but are not limited to, spirituality, style, love, determination, resilience, pride and loyalty. At first glance, these qualities do not appear to fit with the concept “poor.” And, this is the point. The word “poor” has been given so much emphasis in describing low-income people that it overshadows the “real person” and distorts identity, especially to those of us who work with low-income populations. Low-income people scream out, “Yes, I may be poor, but I am more than that.” “I am a spiritual person, I am creative, loving, loyal and defiant. I have my own style, and I have soul.” These modifiers add flesh to the bones of the description of “poor” and move toward humanizing low-income persons. They also provide a more positive point of contact with clients, i.e., it allows us to embrace the poverty and, at the same time, look for other qualities on which to build working relationships. Knowing that a person is poor, as important as this might be is one thing, but knowing of, and appealing to., his/her sense of determination or history of resilience may be key ingredients to a successful case plan. In my estimation, an understanding of the complete person, of soul is as important as understanding the impact of the environment, i.e., the person in the environment to good social work practice. They go hand-in-hand and this adds value to social work practice with oppressed populations.

In preparing good social workers, we devote considerable time to understanding poverty and its causes, to developing cultural humility skills, and focusing on social justice and the importance of social change. Added to this, there is the need for more emphasis on understanding the power of words and how they impact us as we perform our duties and our clients/consumers as they are subject to our interventions. The word “poor” is just one of those words that we need to be far more careful about. I come to this understanding from a lived experience with low-income status. I grew up in a housing project where you had to have papers to prove your low-income status, went to schools where everyone there was low income, and was subject to the mandates of authorities that were especially directed toward the low income, i.e., the police, employers, merchants, the news media, etc.

Despite this existence, I never defined myself by my low-income status alone. Sure, I generally knew that there was more month than money in our household. However, as I grew into adulthood, I understood that life could be rich and rewarding even with limited economic resources. I thought of myself as a good son, a reliable big brother, and as friendly, intelligent and resourceful. I guess that most of my friends in the “projects” felt much the same way about themselves. For someone to appeal to me focusing simply on my low-income status would not have set well with me. I found it insulting, arrogant and a definite put-down. Why not learn about my strengths, that is, my resourcefulness, my dependability or my tenacity? Look beyond my low-income status and find the humanity that is there for all to see.

I now turn to focus on just a few of the qualities that we miss when we fail to look beyond “poor” in describing low-income persons. In discussing these qualities, I am not trying to romanticize the low-income, but simply to paint a broader, more humanistic and complete picture. Just as the middle-class and the wealthy are more than their economic status, so, too, are the low-income. Our focus must be on characteristics that transcend economic class. We must reach an understanding of what it means when a low-income person says, “I may not have money but I have my dignity.” This person could easily add dignity, soul, loyalty, love, tenacity, courage, etc. In short, there exist myriad characteristics that interlock to fill out the description of a real person. Most importantly, these characteristics are not reserved for the middle class or the wealthy; low-income persons also possess these attributes. While sociologists and psychologists might argue that higher economic status increases the probability of increased agency, self-esteem and efficacy, few could possibly argue that low-income populations are devoid of these positive characteristics. Our task is to force ourselves to look beyond economic status and to identify positive characteristics and to assist low-income persons in building on them. Such characteristics include, but are not limited to, soul, spirituality, style, love, determination, resilience, pride and loyalty. What follows is but a brief overview of soul and attendant characteristics that are interwoven and, therefore, inseparable from it. The reader is reminded that soul is so amorphous that it may be indefinable, and this is what makes it so powerful to the oppressed.

Soul — The poet William Ernest Henley (1888) vividly captures the essence of soul in his poem “Invictus.” He wrote, “Out of the night that covers me, black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul” (pp. 56–57). These words reference a strength, a resolve from an unknown source, possibly a god, who makes it possible for a person under the most dire circumstances, even low-income status, to weather the storms of life. “Invictus” continues with “It matters not how strait the gate, how charged the scroll, I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul” (p. 57). Soul, as described through “Invictus,” is like a walking pep talk, a dream, a wish, a reminder that a person with soul cannot, will not, be defined by the oppressive state under which he/she might exist. I may be low-income, but can you see my walk? It is a manifestation of the real me. It is creative, just like the words I use, the songs I sing, or my cool way of “being” under the most difficult of circumstances. “Surely, you can see this and respect it beyond that label of ‘poor.’ THIS IS THE REAL ME, CAN’T YOU SEE, CAN’T YOU HEAR, CAN’T YOU FEEL THE REAL ME?”

A soulful person does not give in to his/her oppressive state. Playing the cards dealt, there is pride seeing new meanings, to leveraging difficult circumstances and a pride in “taking all that the man” can give and not showing that this “taking” is painful. Wearing the mask and exhibiting the cool pose is all a part of this soul. Soul is imaginative and a form of defense against the brutalities of life. Soul is also an element of an offensive strategy that fights against accepting negative definitions of the oppressor. It expresses the essence of who we are, our connection to the earth, and those who have come before us. Soul is a person’s impenetrable space where imagination, improvisation and resistance “win” over the most brutal forms of oppression. This is the space where the soulful person vows not to give up, to give in or to give out, but to find a way to live in quiet dignity right under the noses of those who oppose his/her dignity. Examples of this form of soul is to give new meaning to old words. Bad becomes good, I feel you means “I understand,” and you win, you got me, really is, “I am just getting started on beating you.” The late, great blues musician Ray Charles issued this challenge, “I want you to feel my soul.” He meant that there is more to my music than the words. Likewise, there is more to the person with soul than his/her oppressive state.

Spirituality — Webster defines spirituality as being of or concerning or affecting the soul. In common terms we think of spirituality as relating to religion. However, I use the term in the broader context of a reach beyond the mortal for help. When the hounds of hell are nipping at your heels and there appears to be no earthly help available, a spiritual person “lifts his/her eyes to the hills, from which help surely will come.” It matters not if you believe in a religion since evidence abounds that those who do believe in a spiritual force are benefitted and receive relief from their other worldly faith. In a spiritual sense, one can be free and not give in to oppression and its negative impact. Bitterness, hatred, feelings of worthlessness and high anxiety will not be defining characteristics in a state of spirituality. In spirituality, there is a belief, a hope that somehow, some way, things will get better.

Critics argue that spirituality, especially Christianity, is an opiate and fosters an acceptance on one’s oppressive state. Supporters argue otherwise. They say spirituality provides a sweet relief from the daily grind of oppression and provides a place where creativity can flourish, and an oppositional mentality can develop into freedom. Our spirit relocates us. It reaches up to the heavens, and freedom is renewed by faith. When all else is failing, the spiritual person is likely to hold on and keep trying to make it, hoping for some otherworldly intervention. Christians say, “Let go and let God.” Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader, says, “Keep hope alive.” Some American Indians say, “As long as the grass grows and the river flows, there is hope.”

There is no evidence that low-income persons are more or less spiritual than any other economic class, but surely this class of people possesses this trait. Spirituality then is a trait, a strength, that we can look for in low-income people and, when found to exist, adds a dimension to the person. Though critics often see spirituality and religion as escapism, I think that they dismiss their positive elements too fast. To anyone who has ever witnessed an African American Baptist revival or attended a Lee Williams and the Spiritual Q Cs concert, it would be hard to dismiss the impact of spirituality on the participants, even those of the lowest socioeconomic status. When the preacher gets into his message of hope and deliverance, and you see the picture of calm and belief, people appear to be transformed. Even if just for a few minutes they step beyond poverty, misery and degradation to another place that transitions them from that low-class status. A burden is lifted, and even if it is just for a short while, this relief is welcome and has both spiritual and physical value. It is similar when Lee Williams and the Spiritual Q Cs get into their upbeat version of “I Just Can’t Stop.” It is both spiritual and soulful and has transformative value.

In our work with low-income clients, we should constantly be searching for strengths from which to build. Spirituality is just such a strength, so our challenge as those interested in social uplift is to leave no stone unturned. Beneath the turmoil and despair of lives in poverty just might be the bright light of spirituality in a client that can be used as a building block to greater success. Out of spirituality comes a calm, a sense of hope, relief, creativity and love; all important qualities in the humanity we hope to find in all people.

Resilience — In the storms of life, one hopes to find a strength, an ability to recover quickly, and an endurance that will last through to better times. Resilience is how a person survives, but when I use the term, I think of something more powerful. I see it as a form of heroic resistance. Here I stand and against all odds, I will continue to stand with my head held high, heels dug in facing the wind and all other human obstacles. I refuse to give up, to give in or to give out. Resilience is an admirable quality that we look for in athletes, politicians, employees, our children, our mates and close associates. It is a quality that adds to the depth and character of an individual whether high- or low-income. However, given the stressors that are generally associated with low-income status, it may be that low-income people are exposed to more immediate and life-dependent situations that bring about ongoing stress. Having to decide between paying the rent or buying food, children in trouble with the law, trying to kick a drug habit, dealing with a physically abusive mate, and dealing with such issues continuously and without giving up is the essence of resilience. To the outsider, it is difficult to understand how it is that people in such circumstances persist. To those in these situations who just “keep on keeping on,” they see no alternative. Is it their spirituality that drives them or is it some other quality? Maybe it is soul that provides an inner strength to sustain them through difficulties in life?

Examples of resiliency abound in low-income people. The immigrant who crosses the border on faith and in search of a better life must demonstrate resiliency almost constantly to survive the vicissitudes of life in a new and strange land. So, too, does the low-income single parent mother with two children, who has become an expert at managing the uncertainty of living in the so-called ghetto. The twenty-year veteran of crack cocaine addiction who has been in and out of so many detox centers and treatment programs that he has lost count, but has lived to see five years of sobriety, truly knows something about resiliency. Certainly these people all want to be known for more than their poverty.

Courage — When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, it brought us all up close and personal with the inadequacy of our government to deal with such a national disaster; my mind drifts back to the images of young Black males risking their lives, to save women, the elderly and children from drowning. We all know the stereotypes of young Black males as dumb, deviate and dangerous, but in Katrina we saw courage, determination and true grit. These young men could have taken advantage of the opportunity and been out looting or causing mayhem many expected of them, but instead, they acted courageously to create makeshift rafts and boats to take people to safety. This Katrina situation is just one dramatic example of the courage exhibited in low-income people. However, one should be reminded of the courage it takes to exist on the mean streets of segregated America. All low-income people are not criminals and predators; most live in quiet dignity doing the best they can to make the best lives they can for themselves and their families. However, it is on these streets, in these segregated communities where the low-income have been ignored and abandoned by both public and private institutions, that courage on a daily basis is demonstrated. Just think of what the teenager, who has a dream of escaping the ghetto through getting an education, must endure just to get to school, survive there, and get back home. This requires a sustained courage and a hope beyond imagination. Think too of the single parent mother who resists the “favors” of the local pimp and courageously works two low-paying jobs to sustain herself and family in the hope of escaping poverty.

If we can just turn our focus away from our self-congratulatory notion that “those people” are poor and we are not, we might be able to see the courage and real humanity that flows through low-income persons just as it does in the rest of the population. Only through this shift in focus can we truly begin the process of providing genuine assistance to those who so badly need help in reaching higher ground in a society where the gap continues to grow between the economic classes.


There is more to be said and more work to be done if we are to address, seriously, the problems of income inequality in our society. The social work profession, through its adoption of the person in the environment (P.I.E.) framework and emphasis on the strengths perspective, has laid the groundwork for incorporating soul into social work practice. The CSWE competency, “professional use of self,” sets the stage for soul-to-soul contact, but soul demands more. Soul demands that we consider the circumstances and context that bring a consumer to us. However, it demands that we dig deeper to make a spiritual/human connection that takes us beyond institutional reality. Soul requires us to search for something within ourselves that allows for a human connection with consumers of human services. Soul raises the question, does professional use of self, or can professional use of self, allow for a relationship between social worker and consumers of service that is sensitive to a relationship beyond the environmental context in which each exists.

This is not a pie-in-the-sky question or dream. It is not a call to ignore institutional responsibilities; to the contrary, it is a call to make more meaningful the profession’s call for “professional use of self.” After all, when you cut through all the necessary professional jargon, all the rules, policies, laws and guidelines we are bound to follow, we all came to social work because we thought we could make a difference in the lives of the oppressed, and we thought we could do something to make our corner of the world a better place, a more just place, a more soulful place. Many of us thought we could help transform the world if we could just feel one another’s souls. In short, we wanted soul-to-soul contact. This has been the case for me in the more than fifty years I have been a social worker. I share these thoughts because I believe fervently that soul has been and will continue to be an important element of effective social work practice. We just need to more clearly acknowledge it and move it to the forefront as we continue the struggle for social change and social justice.

This article is intended as just one spark in the fire that must be started to reach this goal. Surely, how we label people is important in the struggle before us. For those of us who have chosen to work to alleviate injustice and reduce income inequality, it is important to be careful and to understand the impact of the works and labels we use. “Poor” is just one of these words. It is demeaning, and it is inaccurate in describing those we work with who happen to be low-income. Remember, sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may break my spirit. We have made great strides in professionalizing social work, in refining casework methods, introducing evidence-based practice, and incorporating scientific methods in research and practice. We should be proud of these accomplishments. However, we must be cautious with these “scientific advances.” The human spirit is not measurable. Soul and the qualities of the human spirit that resides within all human kind, while not measurable, must be taken into consideration for social work practice to reach its goal of social uplift. I believe our profession is secure enough to embrace both the scientific method and the qualities of the heart and soul. Together they form the foundation of effective social work practice for social justice and social change.

We in social work are called on to remember, constantly, that the people we work with are not “poor people”; they are real and complete human beings with soul. This soul, and its inward and outward manifestation, is much more of an indicator of who they are than most all other characteristics.


Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Bantam Classic.

Fanon, F. (1961). The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.

Harrington, M. (1962). The Other America. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.

Henley, W. E. (1888). A Book of Verses. London: D. Nutt.


About the Author

Terry Jones is Professor Emeritus, Department of Social Work, California State University, East Bay, MI 4064, 25800 Carlos Bee Boulevard, Hayward, CA,  94542. He can be reached at or (510) 885-3190.