Why Poverty Sucks

A couple of days ago, I wrote a post about the fact that poverty sucks. At the time, it was really all I could think about as Jessica and I went through the day trying to do a bit of crisis management and come up with a game plan. Almost every solution we were able to come up with was on that ended up with us shelling out money. The song says that money can’t buy you love. It’s true. But it really IS a tremendous tool for getting some things done that need to be done, ESPECIALLY in an emergency.

So, while I titled the post “Poverty Sucks,” I really did not talk about it in terms of why it sucks.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been reading a lot of articles about the psychology that goes along with a person living in poverty; not just for a short time, but long-term and from generation to generation. I’d say that it’s fascinating reading (and it is), but the word “fascinating” tends to make me think positively of the subject. There is nothing positive about it. It’s really sad. REALLY sad. For those of you who might have the mentality of encouraging one to just “pick themselves up from the bootstraps,” I thought I’d run you through the scenario that so many people (once again, mostly single moms) face. In this case, we’ll take the current scenario that the mother of our four latest additions is dealing with.

  • Single mom, four kids. Why she had the four is not relevant for the sake of this story. The point is, she has four small children. That’s what matters.
  • T (girl): age 5, L (girl): age 2 (almost 3), K (boy): age 1 (almost 2) and TJ (boy): age 1 month.
  • Lives in an apartment with her mother. Mother found a new man in her life and leaves the 24 year old daughter to fend for herself (a recurring story).
  • Mother of the four kids (who grew up in foster care herself, spending her life going from home to home until she ultimately aged out) doesn’t have the parenting skills necessary to handle one child let alone four as she’s had no positive influences in her life.
  • Three older children go to live with their dad (same father for all three). This is a man who has a host of domestic abuse charges and convictions against him.
  • Mother of the four kids loses her job because she cannot afford child care and needs to take care of baby.
  • Mother can no longer pay her rent.
  • Mother is evicted (again).
  • Utility bills pile up, but because they are during winter months, they do not shut her off. By the end of winter, electricity is shut off and, including late fees and reconnect charges, has a bill of over $1,300.00
  • As a result of not being able to pay her bill and evictions, when she *does* eventually find a landlord who will take her, she’ll have to come up with a hefty deposit and will likely end up putting the utility bills in one of her kids’ names. When that child grows up and tries to go on his or her own, they will discover that their credit is already shot because there is a collection in their name. It happens. And the cycle continues.
  • Mother has no one to turn to. No family. Brother is in jail.
  • Mother lives in car with newborn almost from day one.
  • Mother calls shelters only to be put on waiting list.
  • Meanwhile, from living in the car, she is accumulating parking tickets ($50.00 each). She “lucks out” in that during the close to one month she’s been living in the car, she’s only gotten five tickets.
  • “Father” of the three kids decides they cramp his lifestyle. Calls the mother and tells her to come get the kids. They are no longer welcome in his house.
  • Mother still has nowhere to turn. Picks up the three kids. Finds an alley to sleep in.
  • Weather is getting cooler. In order to keep kids warm, mother leaves engine running with the heat on.
  • Car runs out of gas.
  • Mother spends a few dollars out of what little money she has to fill up her three gallon gas can so she can start the car.
  • Car starts, gets her to the end of the alley and then stalls.
  • Turns out the fuel pump burned out from running dry too much. Repair cost because gas tank and straps holding gas tank on are rusty: $850.00

So, we have $850 in car repairs, $2,000 in rent and $200 in late fees, $1,300 in utility bills ($200 of which is late fees) and $300 in parking tickets. At least $1,550 of it didn’t need to happen. The car fuel pump probably would not have died if it hadn’t been for the fact that she couldn’t afford to put gas in the car (the pump will burn out with no fuel going through it), and the late fees and parking tickets wouldn’t have happened if she had a place to live. $1,500 is a lot of money for most people to come up with; even harder for a single mom with no family or loved ones to fall back on.

And that’s where we are. Even if she was working a job where she earned minimum wage, it would be almost impossible for her to overcome these things. It’s a domino effect. It’s the way the system is set up. Now, it can be debated as to whether or not the system was intentionally designed that way or if it’s just the way it is all day long, but the reality is, the system, in its current state, IS such that it does not allow much for people to find their way out.

It’s easy to say that there are programs to help these people. And there are. Funding is getting cut every day for these things, but yes, there are programs. But imagine being ONLY ONE and having to deal with four children. Let alone finding time to make the calls and appointments needed to go through that, having the mental fortitude to deal with it is a pretty tall order.

Digging your way out of poverty is like trying to climb a mountain where the peak gets higher and the base gets lower on a daily basis. Yes, some people make it to the top but I’d wager that not a single one of them did it without help.

People like to talk about breaking the cycle of poverty but it’s something that’s easy to talk about while, in reality, it’s just a phrase. How do we break it? Where does it start? I’m not even sure we know anymore. How do you convince someone that there’s hope when everywhere they look, they only see hopelessness? How do people who have only known one way of life decide that there is something better out there for them and their children? How do we learn as a society to actually LEND a hand rather than respond to it with nothing but a bunch of empty words?

I don’t know the answer to any of this, but I do feel like I’m starting to understand what causes the cycle to continue. I hope that by gaining more understanding, we can help to slow it down. Only time will tell.

There are a few resources/articles I’ve read on the psychology of people that are caught in the endless cycle of poverty and they give some really good insight into the minds of the decision making that goes on. It really ISN’T as simple as “just making better decisions,” as so many people think. Do yourself a favor and read some of these.

Your Brain on Poverty: Why Poor People Seem to Make Bad DecisionsThe Atlantic

Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, Poverty ThoughtsKillerMartinis

The Cycle of Poverty is Psychological, Not Just FinancialFastCompany

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2 Comments

  1. We tried helping a family who had their son removed 4 times. We threw some money at it with bedding, clothes, visiting with a hot dish, an occasional ride or event. It takes SO MUCH energy, but that’s what’s needed. Then the 5th removal happened. Efforts wasted because they didn’t want to change. The system failed to teach them skills. They failed to want something badly enough. The dependency system needs dependents… it’s an ugly cycle.

    Everyone needs to see a need and help. You can give the panhandler $20 or $2000, but unless you address what got them there, they are likely to return. They’ve dug a hole. They’re reaping from past and current behaviors. They’ve suffered trauma and have deeply rooted responses to situations. Our foster kids are no different, except duration of exposure (hopefully). Many of them fight those responses learned <2 years old the rest of their lives… how much more work is a 25yo with years of struggling? Much.

    Can some change? Absolutely! The trick/problem is discerning who wants to change their course with all of the work it will take. I hope you found one of the gems and that she has a bright future.

    That boy's parents? Divorced now, if they ever filed papers. One is homeless. The other moved out of state and we don't know where either one is now, exactly. They have had their parental rights terminated. The boy is flourishing.

    • MarcBenz

      I certainly get where you’re coming from Jesse. And you’re right, simply throwing money at the problem does not solve the underlying issue. The solution needs to be multi-pronged but I believe that the minute I start questioning whether the adult is worthy of my help is the minute more children are going to suffer. It’s a fine line and a tough balance to keep, for sure. In a way, we’re “fortunate” in that Jessica understands exactly where it is the person is coming from but also has a no-nonsense approach to it all: fix the immediate need and then find the resources. Never get bitter about where the money went or if it “paid off” in the end. Firm but fair. That’s our motto. 🙂

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