Life After Poverty

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Jinnie English saysshe thought she’d finish her degree in social service administration and take “a managerial position in clinical social work at some kind of agency.” But after graduating from the University of Chicago, she was her family’s sole breadwinner, with two children and one on the way. To earn more than a typical social worker’s salary, she opened her own counseling and therapy practice.

She discovered a “niche population of executives.” Her high-powered clients–most of them African American, Latino, or Asian–were successful in their careers and, by outward measures, in their lives. But their backgrounds often “included poverty, abuse, homelessness, not having a parent,” she says. “Under a really nice suit, great haircut, nice home in the suburbs . . . they were left with the internal struggle of being poor.” English had found her specialty.

Her practice, which English eventually renamed Chicago’s High Achievers, offers two types of services for individuals: “professional” and “personal” development. Typically, clients come in through the career-counseling side, often because they don’t realize that they have personal issues. As those deeper issues come to light, they switch to psychotherapy (English is a licensed clinical social worker).

For clients who work in corporate America, adjusting to wealth and professional success can be a significant problem. “It’s culture shock,” English says. They may have been the first in their families to go to college or to hold a white-collar job.

“Many of my clients grew up in families that were extremely dysfunctional,” she says. “They have no idea how to deal with power or control.”

When her clients understand why they behave a certain way, they can take more responsibility for their actions. English knows where they’re coming from: “That’s my own story too,” she says. Born in Korea and raised in Chicago’s South Side Englewood neighborhood, she is the child of a Korean mother and an African American father. Although her parents both worked, they were poor, at times on welfare. Her economic status is now secure, but “I still feel that shame,” she says, “a horrible feeling.”

Traditional social work focuses on the less privileged, and English says she often encounters the attitude that helping the affluent “doesn’t count.” She calls what she does “nontradi­tional social work,” adding that she handles a second-generation population: “A lot of the executives or professionals who come in to see me are actually the successful products of traditional social work programs.”

Elected president of her alumni association last fall, English hopes to foster a discussion about what traditional and nontraditional social work means and where the discipline is headed. “Social work is not what it used to be,” she says. In the past social workers would “help a family through the system, only to have their children stay in the system. The goal we had was to get them self-sufficient.

“Have we forgotten about our previous clients and how we need to serve them today? Because they still need us.”

Excerpted from University of Chicago Magazine (Jan.-Feb. 2010), an alumni magazine that richly reflects the engaging pursuits of its intellectual community.

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