Notes On Poverty

Below are short excerpts from things I have written and spoken about over the years regarding poverty in America. These are thoughts and understanding I arrived at while living in poverty as a single mother of four children. It is because of my understanding of what it is like to live in poverty in a “first world country,” that I have also come to the conclusion that the system many are led to believe is meant to help the poor ‘lift themselves up by their boot straps,’ is actually deliberately designed to keep them in an oppressed place, particularly Black Americans. The root cause of poverty is situational- for this reason, I say the root cause of poverty is the failure of so called economic policy makers to understand what it truly means to live a life of poverty in America.

Poverty- Not One Size Fits All

Photo by Stanislav Kondratiev

There are levels.

All of them fall below the federal poverty guidelines.

Imagine that you are a person responsible for supporting a family of five in poverty. No matter your family size, any level of poverty can apply to you depending on different mitigating circumstances.

Level 1- Completely impoverished. Cannot mobilize in any way, shape, or form without being provided outside assistance (Think: Someone receiving housing assistance, employment assistance, foodstamps, welfare, Medicaid, etc.. all at the same time).

Level 2- Receiving one or more forms of government assistance to maintain at this level, but could move on to Level 3 with the right support and circumstances.

Level 3- May be receiving some government assistance, but at a minimum (Foodstamps and/or Medicaid, as requirement), but can very likely move from Level 3 to lower- middle class with the right support and circumstances.

You can be homeless, or not. You can have a job, or not. These things carry significance only in concern of the exasperating effect not having them present to you; in addition to your level of poverty and mitigating circumstances.

When you live below the established poverty guidelines for your household size, the next thing that must be determined is which level of poverty you fall into, and how close you are to reaching the next level. This is THE determining factor that has to be understood for the proper assistance to be provided to you. There is no other understanding to be had in this matter.

More to follow on this topic…

Despising the Poor, Pt. 1- Assumptions

America the Great hates its poor.

However, this hatred is generally disguised in benign and passive aggressive ways, much like modern day racism.

There are generally two faulty types of thinking that motivate the average person’s hardheartedness towards the poor and impoverished:

1) A person’s poverty is caused by poor choices. If they made better choices, they could take the necessary steps to come out of poverty.

2) That even if their poverty is caused by unforeseen events or caused by uncontrollable events, there are ample opportunities and resources available to the impoverished to take the necessary steps to regain financial control.

Furthermore, the motivation of this thinking is based on the assumptions that;

1) Being impoverished is a choice

2) That the lack of certain resources do not present challenges that someone presented with more opportunities or access to resources may not face; Moreover, a lack of certain resources do not present challenges that another impoverished person may not face.

3) That being poor and impoverished doesn’t change you i.e. has an effect on your physical, mental, and emotional state.

Many researchers have published findings regarding the correlations between poverty and crime. Remember that American values are promoted with the idea that there are equal opportunities available to all, and if a person finds themselves on the opposing end of these opportunities, it can only be attributed to some fault of their own. Therefore, there is a disconnect in many researchers’ understanding of the links between poverty and crime.

There is also a high -level of hardheartedness from the average American towards the poor and impoverished who commit crimes. Generally, this is based on two faulty types of thinking:

1) Since being impoverished is a choice, a person who is impoverished generally makes bad or irresponsible choices, therefor a poor or impoverished, despite opportunities made equally available to them (i.e. government assistance, college education), then they are choosing to be poor or impoverished.

2) When poor or impoverished persons commit crimes, they have chosen to neglect taking advantage of equal opportunities made available to them, and have made an active choice to commit a crime instead.

More to follow on this topic…

Despising the Poor, Pt.2- Contemptuous Giving

Photo by Pixabay

“If a brother or a sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, ‘Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled’; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?” ~ James 2:15-16

In Part I, we saw how Americans use the excuse of holding people accountable as a way to mask a secret contempt for the poor and needy in our society. We also discussed the underlying beliefs that motivate our contempt. Now we will consider how this contempt produces a self-centered form of giving.

I have witnessed this type of giving most often with large non-profits entrusted with helping the “less fortunate.” Because of the secret contempt held by the people these organizations ask for donations, campaigns have to be created on the foundation of:

  1. Evoking emotion
  2. Popularity (Think of the Red Cross and Haiti)
  3. Pressure/Guilt (Think of the campaigns by various hospitals at the checkout line)
  4. Tax incentives

When philanthropy is motivated by any reason other than a genuine concern for the receiver, it does more harm than good. For example, I was once in a transitional housing program for homeless families. The program worked with several donors to provide Christmas gifts to all the families in the program. The prerequisite was that all families were required to plan their day around a breakfast during which these generous donors (often masked as volunteers), in addition to a local news station, were present. Quite bothered by this, I discussed my concerns with the program manager who informed me that in order to receive any Christmas assistance that year, I would have to attend this breakfast. Because I did not feel comfortable with the idea of being filmed and sitting around eating breakfast with people I did not know, I opted out of assistance that year.

Now think, if this philanthropy was motivated by a genuine desire to provide gifts to a family in need, would that desire also invoke the need for a news crew? The need to parade families around a gym for news coverage as you watched secretly behind the scenes? One sure sign that a person is committing an act of charity from a pure place is that they will treat others as they would have someone treat them if they were in the same shoes. The popular counter to this: ‘Well, I’d be happy to let someone film me getting free stuff and eating free food if that’s all I had to do to get it!’ but if you had a choice, would you really? Remember, Jesus said, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them*,” not “In all things make others accept only what you would accept if you HAD to.” We are not talking about extravagant giveaways of electronics or family vacations here. Reflect on the thought that most times, the items that are given away to assist families during Christmas are items that they need, not simply things that they want. Giving someone something they need should be something that we are willing to do at any time, and we should always strive to do so in a way that preserves a person’s dignity. Isn’t that what you would want someone to do for you?

*Matthew 7:12, also known as “The Golden Rule.”

Removing the Veil- The Truth About Contract Employment

Photo by Pixabay

Recently, I have read a few articles discussing the rise in employees working as contractors. For the first time this year, I will file taxes using a 1099 Form, due to my part-time employment as a contract worker for a local organization. With the way my personal life is setup, this part-time employment provides me with the benefit of creating my own schedule around the priority of my family, but I can also see first- hand the darkness rising with this type of employment.

Right off the bat, I started to feel the effects of this change in employment category when attempting to file my taxes. As I read through the different filing software I was considering to use, I realized that I would have to pay a fee in order to file my taxes this year, since I was counting income using a 1099. Usually, due to my low-income status, I can file for free. Being low-income, the fee was nothing to cough at. But as I have read through these articles, something else is striking me. In the stories I read, the rise in contract work was made to appear as if it was a choice made by the employee, rather than the only option that is starting to be presented to people now-especially since employers are realizing the benefits of having people at their disposal that they don’t truly have to be responsible for. And if we increasingly find that employers are offering livable wages that are purely contractual, then the benefits of “being your own boss” will start to pale in comparison to the disadvantages.

For example, my current employment allows me more time to focus on my family. Let’s say that I am being paid $20 an hour. Great wage right? But I am only contracted to work for 8-10 hours a week. Not to mention all the costs I incur as a contract employee, because the employer is not entitled to give me the tools necessary to perform the job, as they would do for someone who they actually hired into their company. My rent every month is $870. Even without the deduction of taxes, the amount I am being paid to work this job is not even enough to cover my most basic living expense. Keep in mind that I prefer to work full-time, but I also find increasingly that employers want the benefits that come with hiring educated employees, while offering less than entry-level benefits.

For some people who have two-income households this employment may be okay, because one person may hold a full-time job, while the other is working as a contractor. But think about single parents who already struggle with choosing between providing for their families and being present for their families. What good does it do someone to strive to provide for a family at the (increasingly permanent) cost of their quality of life?

Legal Representation for the Poor

Enough said.

Despising the Poor, Pt. 3- Utilitarian Aid

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“We’re forgetting how to give presents…Instead we have charity administered beneficence, the planned plastering over of society’s visible sores.” ~Theodor Adorno

Utilitarian Philanthropy– Modern concept. Most associated with Australian philosopher Peter Singer. The idea that there is such a thing as good and bad philanthropy, and that good philanthropy does the most good when administered to the greatest number of people.

As our country has progressed economically, individuals have been able to move past Level One poverty (Depression Era) towards the American Dream. However, many people, on their way to what we determine to be middle class, have gotten caught in the throes of poverty; essentially Levels One and Two. However, although we have been able to progress economically since the Great Depression, what has not changed is our understanding of what it means to be poor, and what this looks like in modern society. It is for this reason that the utilitarian philosophy behind government assistance ultimately fails.

Most government assistance- foodstamps, housing, medicaid, and welfare (TANF) was created in such a way as to appease Level One poverty. Consider that these programs were established in response to the lingering effects of The Great Depression (The New Deal). Over time, the administration of these benefits has become based on a utilitarian philosophy, ‘do the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people;” herein lies the flaw, as long as an agency can beef up it’s marketing campaign and put forth extravagant numbers to a public attempting to hold them accountable, they can get away with providing the most basic levels of aid while appearing to provide assistance well beyond what is actually being received. Even as there continues to be an increase in the gap between those who have, and those who have not.

For example, I once needed rental assistance for a month I fell short. With no other resources available to me, I reached out to a local Indianapolis organization for help. The intake process required that I bring in several identifying documents for both me and my children, as well as attend several career building classes that included job preparation and learning how to write a resume. Being a college student at the time, I felt it quite unnecessary, in addition to my already full schedule as a student with a part-time work-study job, to figure out how to fit attending this program into my schedule. Did I mention that attending these classes meant that I would have to be available for an entire business day each time? I explained to the woman assisting me on the phone that I actually had a current resume, and as a college student, I was l already on track towards a chosen career. Besides, the college I was attending had a Career Services Department that was openly accessible to me anytime I felt I needed employment assistance,

Welp, the only way you can get any assistance through us is if you sign up for our job preparedness program, she informed. On top of all this, the soonest available intake appointment was two weeks away. It wasn’t until I took a few moments of silent reflection about what else I could do, (there are VERY few places a person can get this kind of assistance in Indianapolis, despite many organizations touting offering this aid), she finally admitted that even after doing all of this, rental assistance was not guaranteed. With the threat of eviction looming in less than a month’s distance, time was of the essence. Needless to say, I did not receive assistance from this agency, or from any other for that matter.

For those in our society who have not had the pleasure of being labelled a ‘have not’, the formula seems simple. You need help, the aid is available, and as long you are eligible you apply to receive it, right? However, many programs administering government aid are bogged down with red-tape and unnecessary hoop-jumping, preventing the funding from being effective for many in need.

I completely understand that it is not the government’s responsibility to repair the underlying issue plaguing those who are impoverished-

Hold on…

Matter of fact, I take that back.

IT IS OUR government’s burden to carry because it was the government who first stereotyped the poor as lazy nincompoops who just need a firm kick in the bum as motivation to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Think back to Reagan’s administration, when language and policy was used to stigmatize poor (often Black) people while boosting up lower middle class (often White) people.

Nonetheless, I know that what is needed to address issues of poverty cannot be accomplished by the government alone.There are solutions that can be applied in order to lessen the gap between the haves and have-nots, but none of them can be achieved without changing the way we think about what it means to be “a have not,” and the truth about what helping those in need really entails: a change in the ideas that lie in our minds, stemming from what we truly feel in our hearts.


“Fair Housing”

Photo by Aro Ha

Consider a city in which a group of investors come up with the idea to purchase an apartment community in a low-income neighborhood. A business model is created to be implemented in three stages: the first stage begins with renting out remodeled apartment units to low-income persons, allowing them to bypass certain credit checks that prevent them from living in other places within the city. Covertly, a system is established to lease certain units to individuals whose credit checks reveal a high debt to income ratio-making it more likely that they will default on their leasing contracts. Because these investors understand the economics of profiting off the poor, they are sure to be successful; there is no sense of immorality in their actions because they believe the poor to be willfully ignorant decision -makers anyway. The city acts as a stronghold for this secret discrimination, since outside of the necessary federal guidelines, there are no rights firmly upheld to protect the poor.

The second stage begins after the necessary filing fees and late charges have been added to the defaulting tenant’s outstanding rent, further preventing the poor citizen from being able to ‘pay and stay.’ People working on behalf of the investors are able to drag the tenant into court to fight what is guaranteed to be a winning fight-in this court, the judge is known to be considerate of landlord rights, even tacking on a gratuity of at least 2% interest for every year the judgment goes unpaid. Appreciation for this thoughtfulness is shown through monetary donations to the judge’s campaign during election years.

The final stage of the plan is the most rewarding. In certain years, after interest has compounded, resources and attorneys are compiled to begin calling in the balance on outstanding judgments. Again, because these investors understand certain economics, they know that those indebted to them often anticipate receiving a large sum of money each year during tax season. Again, these debtors are dragged into court and judgments are issued to garnish wages and tax refunds. Because the indebted are often waiting on their taxes to get caught up where their wages fail throughout the year, a garnishment such as this can be devastating. Now, those who are unable to get caught up on certain debts seek government assistance to supplement the increased gap between their wages and the cost of living, and a new wave of homeless with stained rental histories hit the streets in search of a merciful landlord-and the cycle for the three-stage business model begins again.

Could you imagine?

“Education is the best weapon to fight poverty”

Photo courtesy of Sam Balye

“Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”

Proverbs 16:18

Imagine there is a school district that is not only bland in color, but also in culture. For a boost, administration comes up with the idea to bus in minorities from the local neighborhood who otherwise are not welcome into the schools. A campaign is launched and presented as a noble cause for the community, and state and federal funding is provided to pay for the increased costs to bus the low-income from their neighborhood schools to schools in which they will receive a more “quality” education. Among other things, the schools in the district receive funding to pay for increased costs of administration, free and reduced lunch, and textbooks.

Time passes. Once enough of this government aid has been stored in the coffers, and the interest earned on the money saved has grown, another campaign is quietly underway to no longer bus the students, as the original goal to increase diversity and enrollment in the school district has been completed, including more opportunities for the local neighborhood. However, the educational experience of the students bussed in from the local neighborhood remains without significant change, despite the benefit they provide to the school district in sports, culture, and federal funding.

After the bussing campaign has ended, and the goal of the school district has been completed, everyone who had a hand in executing the original idea receives monetary pay offs upward of six figures, and promises made on particular positions are kept. As certain school board members transition out of their roles in the administration that oversaw the campaign, nods are given to those they want to take their place.

Fancily built up for all to see, the blandness that once personified the school district is long forgotten. Now, policies are quietly in place that serve to demonize the very population they built themselves up on, and the enrollment that was once offered to these students so very freely must now be paid for.

Could you imagine?

STOP Blaming the Government

Drawing by The British Library licensed under CC-CC0 1.0

As quiet as it’s kept, it’s really OUR fault.

America’s general attitudes towards the poor keeps them out of economic circles that would encourage or stimulate their economic growth.

I spent some time reading articles put out by the LA Times*, and I was largely unsurprised by their findings. This one paragraph pretty much sums up the point I am trying to make in this note:

“Criticism of the poor – a belief that there are “plenty of jobs available for poor people,” that government programs breed dependency and that most poor people would “prefer to stay on welfare” – is especially common among the blue-collar, white Americans who have given the strongest support to Donald Trump. “-The Poverty Project, David Lauter

Political insinuations aside, I would like to offer my belief that this mindframe is held by a larger share of Americans than projected in this article. Oftentimes, the White collar workers-those working in the welfare office, or those occupying the positions responsible for distributing assistance to the poor or impoverished-carry this general mentality too, across racial lines.

But anyway, the idea that:

  1. The poor are at fault for their economic downfalls, and therefore responsible for figuring how to get out;
  2. The government, or someone besides ourselves has a responsibility to the poor;

is largely the reason why people in lower economic classes cannot push forward in an effective way. These types of thoughts and attitudes keep the lower economic classes relegated to their poverty, because as I have said before, when you are impoverished, you are in need of something greater than your situation to pull you out. This is why you can have a person who is economically impoverished live as if they are poor-or even lower to upper-middle class, as long as they have a generous circle of friends who do not mind sharing their resources with them. Think Joey from Friends, or Lynn from the iconic television show, Girlfriends. In both cases, their characters would have been a part of the working poor or impoverished. However, because both were surrounded by friends in higher economic classes, they were able to live in ways and have experiences that, in real life, their characters would have been isolated from.

Resources also includes knowledge. Consider the episode of Girlfriends when Toni needed legal assistance for her divorce case, or when Mya needed an attorney to look over her lease before moving into her apartment. Both ladies had two lawyer friends they could reach out to for help. If you are able to help a person increase their economic power (in a way that is realistic for them!) but you refuse to share that information, then you are helping to perpetuate the cycle of poverty.

In the cases of Lynn and Joey, both of their characters were seen as the leeching friend. On television, its all funny and cute, but in real life, these types of people are despised. This reality overshadows the truth that many poor and impoverished people maintain the same work ethic and integrity seen as respectable and honorable from higher economic classes.

For this reason, the poor and impoverished are more likely to float around within the same economic class, forced to lean on support systems that either fault them for their situation (even while providing inadequate assistance), or those who lack the same access to resources they do. Imagine if this same theology was applied to the students in D.C: ‘You go to school everyday, right? Therefore, it is your fault that you are not learning. So we will just keep passing you along from grade to grade without the resources you need until it gets so bad that’- Oh wait….

*The authors of this article also put together an easy to follow interactive that sums up their research as written in the article. I highly recommend it for a visual on how America views the poor. You can check it out by clicking on this sentence.

2 responses to “Notes On Poverty”

  1. Very interesting perspectives!


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