Poverty and Politics

Poverty and PoliticsThere are more people receiving food stamps and other government benefits associated with poverty than ever before.  The amount of children being raised in poverty is rising, from 17% of children in 2006 to over 22% today.  That may seem like only an incremental rise, but at this rate it may only be a few years before one in four kids will be born into a family where the parents are unable to meet the child’s basic needs without government assistance.  With all of the noise going on in the election, what message is getting through to those impoverished families?  What are they to believe will be done to help them rise above struggling every day just to survive, waiting for Uncle Sam to put food on their table and health care within their grasp?

Right now, if you filter out all of the white noise what you get is rhetoric.  Democrats believe that the problem is social welfare programs being underfunded.  Republicans believe that there is too much gaming the system and waste.  The actual candidates offer completely opposed plans.  Obama would expand social welfare benefits and fund more programs, plus he would continue the plans he’s already had in place for the last four years.  Don’t mistake me, I believe that feeding hungry people and creating jobs by offering tax incentives for buying homes and making them more energy efficient is great for the people it helps.  But will it prevent anyone from becoming poor, or give people the tools to leave poverty?  Or will it only make their impoverishment more bearable?  Mitt Romney believes in battling poverty by cutting (ahem) wasteful entitlement programs and offering more tax breaks for the rich, reduction in corporate tax burdens, and economic deregulation.  He states that this is because in a thriving and growing economy, those who are struggling are able to find the help that they need.  Both candidates believe in the government partnering in private and faith based charities, because they believe that such charities have the best networks for delivering aid.  Neither one of them has a plan that addresses the reasons the poverty rate is growing.

I believe the entire tenor of the election shows a level of ignorance and unwillingness to address the true problems of our society that I would expect more from a freshman taking their first economics course than the leaders of one of the most vital societies in the world.  The problem with poverty is not just a lack of economic resources, as the Democratic party seems to believe.  Poverty is not about unwillingness to take advantage of resources or laziness, as the Republican party’s stance implies.  Poverty is a complex problem that both needs and deserves a nuanced and informed discussion.  If our country is going to remain a land of opportunity, then that means every child born needs to have equal opportunity to succeed throughout their life.  Right now, that is simply not the case.

Generational poverty often walks hand in hand with a lack of social, spiritual, emotional, and mental health resources.  While the government may be working to help treat some of the problems that such an extreme lack of resources creates, often the government’s approach is to put a band aid on the wound after the fact.  Take, for example, someone with severe bi-polar disorder.  We will call this person “Bob”.  Bob starts showing inconsistency at work and his boss starts to put pressure on him because his output is fluctuating.  Bob’s level of frustration avalanches and he gets into an argument with his boss, who fires him.  Bob’s wife isn’t working because they can’t afford childcare, and their family survives from paycheck to paycheck.  So after a month of getting further and further behind, they move into a homeless shelter while both of them look for a job.  Whoever works, works, and the other person will stay at home with the kids.  Bob is going through periods of deep depression during which he doesn’t even shower, followed by days in which he doesn’t sleep and fills out online job applications all night long.  At times he’s upbeat about his family’s prospects, but every time he finds out he’s been turned down by another job he spirals even lower, until he threatens suicide and someone at the shelter refers him for a voluntary 24 hour committal at a local mental health facility.  The cost of that committal is astronomical, but will be absorbed by the state.  The same is essentially true for the costs of Bob’s family’s homelessness.  The good news is that Bob will leave the mental health facility with some medication and a diagnosis, and if all goes well his family will be able to return to stability.  But there is a huge question here:  Would it ultimately cost society less, both in actual and immeasurable terms, to have a better system in place to help Bob and his family before they hit rock bottom?

Even after our proverbial Bob is working again, there are still a lot of problems that he will face that society as a whole ignores, misinterprets, or maligns him for.  Firstly, Bob may not be able to find a job that provides coverage for ongoing mental health care.  Because he needs to keep seeing his therapist and keep taking his medication to be stable, that means that Bob may intentionally choose a lower paying job that does not get his family out of poverty, so that he can keep his Medicaid benefits.  Bob’s wife may be caught in a Catch-22 where if she takes advantage of state childcare programs to get a job, their family may start making enough money that they no longer qualify for them, meaning that she’d be working just to pay for childcare with nothing left over to help their family get ahead.  When tax time comes, Bob will probably blow all of the money that he gets from his Earned Income Tax Credit and other tax benefits as quickly as possible so that they never go over the limit of how much money they are allowed to have in the bank and keep receiving benefits.  This may mean that they repaint their house, buy a wide screen TV, and upgrade their cars but still don’t know how they are going to be able to pay their bills month to month.  If Bob is really smart he’ll pay the bills ahead some, but that just delays the inevitable moment when they have to question if they are going to be able to make it on their own.  There are many families that live on and off of the state and in and out of homelessness, providing for themselves when they can but ultimately going back into shelters because they are simply unable to remain stable.  Bob’s family might end up in that unfortunate situation.

Let’s imagine that some friends of Bob’s that are doing fairly well offer to take Bob and his family under their wing and teach them some of the “secrets” to getting by on less.  Some of these involve things like buying in bulk, buying clothes secondhand, budgeting, and the like.  Bob wants to be able to take advantage of these lessons but is too embarrassed to explain why none of it works.  It’s impossible to buy in bulk when you barely have enough money to buy enough groceries to survive.  If he spent $200 on bulk pasta and the like at Costco that would be the only food his family had for the month, and no one wants to eat a rotating menu of spaghetti, hamburgers, and macaroni for the rest of their lives.  Buying clothes secondhand might be cheaper than buying name brand labels in the mall, but paying $75 on clothes instead of $300 only looks good when you have the $75 to spend in the first place.  Bob’s wife keeps making the rounds of churches and charities that offer clothes for free, hoping to find enough to keep their kids looking presentable.  Meanwhile, her and Bob wear the same things every day until the clothes are falling apart, and half the time what they do have isn’t quite the right size.  Next year they’ll use part of their tax return on clothes, so they pray that the threads they do have last them long enough to get there.  Budgeting?   Bob has to laugh.  How do you budget when you are running in the red?  When he and his wife sit down to look at their lack of finances, all they discuss is what bills they do and don’t pay each month.  They take the advice of another friend and get connected with a local church, but they find their experiences there embarrassing.  It’s as if there is an unwritten code to how you should dress and act, and Bob knows that his family isn’t doing it quite right even though he doesn’t know what needs to change.

There are unspoken rules to being middle class, just like there are unspoken rules to being poor.  Even the rules regarding conversation and language are subtly different, and unless you have the opportunity to learn those rules in safety it is bound to lead to embarrassment.  How do you know, for instance, who gets the next turn in a conversation?  Each class has its own way of signaling who leads and who follows.  The Bridges out of Poverty program teaches about how those rules are defined for each group.  In poverty, a conversation is a group effort.  Everyone participates in storytelling.  The story doesn’t go from point A to point B to point C, everyone pitches in, sometimes telling completely different and only vaguely related stories.  I’ve seen these conversations go on for hours before someone finally lands the proverbial plane.  In the middle class, the speaker gets the floor and is only interrupted by polite interjections like “You don’t say!” until they land the plane themselves.  In higher classes, the rules are defined differently, often by who in the room has the most power and influence.  The triggers for identifying what rules govern the interaction are intangible.  Imagine, then, what happens when someone who is used to community storytelling is placed in a $100 a plate luncheon.  Or, in a more everyday example, when Bob and his wife visit their neighborhood church and attend a carry-in meal.

People, generally speaking, don’t have to be aware of the rules that govern the classes they aren’t a part of.  Most people can live throughout their entire lives happily oblivious to the fact that the way that they direct their lives is not the way that everyone in our fair country does.  How a wealthy person spends their time and money is completely different from the way a poor person does not just because of the amount of money in the picture, but because of the rules and values that set the classes apart from each other. Besides which, there are resources in play beyond cold hard cash.  One of the biggest resources that middle class people have and poor people need is time.  For example, how do you wash your laundry?  When I need to wash my laundry, I go into the other room, put in a load, and then come and finish the work that is in front of me. When a poor single mother needs to wash her laundry she has to walk to the laundromat with her kids in tow, as well as the children of a neighbor that she is watching for a few dollars an hour.  I get up when I hear the buzzer and switch the load.  She spends almost an entire day just getting the clothes washed and dried, trying to keep five energetic kids in check in a crowded laundromat.  All she does is get more and more stressed out.

That’s not the only way that my life and the single mother’s proverbial life are totally different.  When I need to get groceries I can drive to the grocery store.  She would have to walk with the children in tow again.  Ever try to get frozen food home in a hand cart, while trying to wrangle kids on a city bus?  Talk about stress!  I go into the grocery store, buy what I need, and leave.  Many a woman in poverty has to add up her groceries as she shops, careful not to go above her weekly limit.  If chicken or flour is a little more expensive, she has to change what she’s buying mid stride or just find a way to do without.  Not only that, but she’s hampered by time.  Even if I need something for the meal I’m making tonight, I can go and buy it with plenty of time to spare.  She can only cook what she is able to cook quickly, and if she doesn’t have what she needs there’s no way she’s getting it.  That’s why her kids are used to a lot of grilled cheese and Ramen meals, not because she doesn’t care about them eating well, but because she doesn’t have the time or money to do better.  Trust me; many of the women in her situation feel a constant, gnawing guilt.  One woman I know tearfully admitted that she hates buying her kids fast food, but between school and work the only time she has for buying groceries is late at night when the kids are sleeping.  “I wish I actually used my food stamps on healthy things,” she said, “but when I buy things fresh they spoil before I get a chance to cook them.  I wish I could do better for the kids.”

Speaking of the kids; let’s talk about schooling.  Imagine being yanked out of your school mid- year because you’re moving into a homeless shelter a few counties to the west.  This is even worse for kids with special needs, as there’s no guarantee that the plan that one school comes up with to meet your child’s needs can be implemented by another one.  It’s hard enough for any child to be the “new kid”, but when your parents are in extreme poverty it’s even worse.  Often stress leads to behavioral problems which create a self-perpetuating label of “problem child”.  That’s not even taking into account the fact that impoverished children may have more psychological and physiological barriers to learning in the first place.  Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control have an ongoing study of childhood experiences and their long term affects on health called ACES (the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study). What that study has found is that the more adverse experiences a child has very early in life, like living in extreme poverty, abuse, or witnessing the abuse of a parent, the more likely that child is to grow up to have any number of health and learning problems.  What scientists are finding is that stress, especially chronic stress, changes the chemistry of the brain. It can cause a constant state of trauma in which the brain is hyper-aware of threats and running on adrenaline.  This shuts down the parts of the brain which are needed for learning, emotional regulation, and maintaining a healthy immune system.  Chances are good that a child in extreme poverty’s brain is itself less healthy than a middle class child’s.

While this may not be true for everyone, it is inarguable that a child raised in poverty does not have the same opportunities, from the moment it leaves the birth canal, as a child born into a self-sustaining home.  There are social, emotional, and economic struggles that paint a completely different picture for families in poverty than for families in the middle class.  The difference in the social rules and expectations can be staggering, and the misunderstandings between the classes are disheartening.  Even more disheartening is the way in which politicians monopolize on those misunderstandings for their own gain.

Children should not have their opportunities limited because of the circumstances of their birth.  School systems should not be so tied down in teaching to standardized tests that they cannot teach children the skills necessary to navigate between classes.  The mental health system shouldn’t be used as a band aid for illness when the symptoms become problematic for society, it should address problems  early on and allow people to remain stable and productive for the sake of our economy.  Children should not be exposed to so much stress that their brains and health are forever hampered by traumatic daily life.  We, as a society, need to take responsibility not just for ourselves but for the good of our nation.  Our nation’s welfare demands that even the least of us be treated with dignity, honor, and respect.

This political season, let’s not accept rhetoric as a replacement for a real conversation.  I don’t know what can be done to change the system, but it needs to change.  No matter how hard we tax and how big we fund, we’re just feeding all of our energies into a band-aid on an arterial wound.  At some point things are going to get a whole lot messier.  While there may not be deaths, there is a loss of life,  the loss of the life a child might have lived if they’d grown up in safety and consistency  and the life that you or I might be able to live, if we were to have a thriving economy full of industrious people whose lives were stable enough that they could save and spend money like the middle class.  The life that we still imagine is promised to all in our nation as the “American Dream.”  A life that is now more fantasy than reality for many, and soon will be lost to even more.

The rhetoric is unacceptable, and the consequences are dire.  Let’s demand a plan.

Last 5 posts by Lindsey Kay