The Scary Reality of Poverty

February 24, 2009


I was speaking with someone the other day and the subject of social work came up.
The person I was speaking with was asking me about different social organizations and charities I was interested in working with. I mentioned one regarding displaced people from other countries involved with state refugee programs as well as various homeless shelters and poverty aid programs. When the subject of poverty and homelessness arose, she spoke very sympathetically of programs dealing with homeless and poor children because “they don’t have any control over their situation,” but said that such work would be too emotionally draining for her. “Working with adults would be easier because their situation is more a result of their choices,” she said (of course poor children are likely to grow into poor adults, but that’s another story). This person meant well, and is not mean-spirited, but the implications of such a statement are wide ranging and tragically commonplace enough to almost be a general consensus. I even hear such claims from folks on the borderline or just north of the edge of poverty themselves, and I think possibly they feel their hard work is keeping them ahead and that all others should be able to do the same thing.

When you really look at the factors that lead many to extreme poverty, it’s scary how many of those factors are undiscriminating, random and uncontrollable. Poverty also tends to reproduce itself and be both cause and effect quite often.  Beth Shulman’s excellent book “The Betrayal of Work” thoroughly  describes the emergent caste system in America, a country where the gap between the haves and the have-nots is a wide gulf that widens every year (one startling stat from the book points to the disparity between the US and a country like Germany–in Germany the lower class often makes around 35 percent of what the upper class makes, in America the lower class makes only around 7 percent of what the upper class makes). Of course, there are factors that are a result of personal bad choices: running up credit cards on frivolous purchases, drug use, etc. This of course doesn’t mean such folks don’t deserve help, but I assume such qualities would make the situation less heartbreaking for someone who desires to find a rational reason that someone else is in dire straits so that they themselves can seek to avoid such things.

The truth of the matter is, though, that a huge percentage of adults that find themselves in extreme poverty and often in homelessness end up there due to factors largely beyond their control. An average person without a college degree, or without even a high school diploma will find it hard starting out in life locating any sort of job that will pay them adequately enough to  cover their own bills and expenses, much less those of a spouse or children. Even many with a college degree find it increasingly difficult to find a well paying job and most of them start out with an added layer of debt, so they too are not immune to financial risk. An average person, no matter how hard working they are, may realistically find themselves working in the service sector making minimum wage at worse, around ten dollars an hour at best. In an average city, even with 40 hours a week at the high end of this range, rent, health insurance, car payments, utilities, food and necessities are barely attainable; insurance is often the first thing to be cut. One major health issue without insurance, and quite often even with insurance, can result in a large (and largely un-payable) bill. Little other than an unpaid medical bill can as quickly destroy a person’s credit. Once a person has bad credit it’s even more difficult to find a “good” job since many of those good jobs do extensive credit checks on potential employees before hiring them. Credit is something that seems to be as important, if not more important, as actual income and personal savings. Credit is hard to build and easy to destroy. A large medical bill is not the only thing that can destroy a person’s credit, deplete a persons savings and ultimately land a person in extreme poverty. A divorce, accident or any number of other commonplace personal hardships can do that as well.

So the factors that can lead to poverty and ultimately homelessness are for very many people just a bad credit report, large medical bill or accident away. Considering that there are millions of “working poor” in America, those that sometimes work up to 2 and 3 jobs at a time in the service sector or multiple hours in 1 of them, each potentially a month away from such a situation means that it isn’t so easy to assign personal fault for someone’s station in life. The working poor are the people who work as hard as they can in areas as various as childcare, education, daycare, restaurants, banks, retail stores and as janitors, flight attendants, secretaries and call center operators.

The misnomer that those that are poor, those that have low-paying jobs and that those that are homeless are largely responsible for their own situation must end. Even those that are responsible in part or in whole for the situation they are in still deserve help, compassion and consideration from those that seek to serve their fellow human. Yet many, if not a majority, of people end up in a dire financial situation through little fault of their own. It’s time this nation recognizes this emerging modern day caste system and does its best to slim the gap that has done nothing but widen over the past few decades. So many people place such a high emphasis on work as a value in and of itself. I hear all the time people brag about never missing work due to illness, and in every corner of employment I’ve ever had I’ve often heard those in management chastise others for taking off for reasons ranging from sickness and family time to wanting to attend a concert or take a college course. This value of work shouldn’t be worshipped for the sheer sake of work alone, and an occasional request off for reasons and events that tend to the body (recovery from illness), creative sense and passion (concert), mind (college course) and family (holiday, etc) is a good and needed thing. Work should often be a means to an end, and its value should come from that which it provides for the participant and also for the good it accomplishes in the society it emerges from. If work is important, and so many derive so much of their personal sense of being from the work that they do, then let’s allow a system to emerge that takes care of those that do their work with skill, hard work, patience and thoughtfulness. Let’s make sure in America that those that work hard will have enough to take care of themselves and their families. Let’s make sure the system takes care of those that become ill and cannot work, let’s institute a system in which working hard doesn’t lead to defeat and despair but to potential and positive results. And as long as the current system exists in the form that it takes today, that of corporate hyper-capitalism and borderline social Darwinism, let’s never for a minute think that those at the bottom of this structure are there merely due to bad choices of their own–because many of us can be there at any moment. Our current economic system relies more on connection, luck, and pre-existing power than it does the actual “American Dream” that was once thought to be possibly attained through sheer force of will and dedication.
***I recommend Beth Schulman’s above mentioned book, “The Betrayal of Work- How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans,” as well as Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America” for extended looks on the current economic situation (and this was pre-recession, believe it or not) and the documentaries “Sicko” for a scary look at healthcare and “The Corporation” for a look at the social Darwinism system at work in our country today. Of course, if you’re honest with yourself and have ever worked for very long in the service sector as a retail salesperson, cashier, grocer, teller, secretary, waiter or janitor you probably already know more than you could ever want to know about much of this.


One Response to “The Scary Reality of Poverty”

  1. Jenna said

    well said!

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