Another great article from The Atlantic explores how living in a state of poverty entails a vicious cycle from which most victims struggle to escape — often for the rest of their lives and to no avail. The problem is worsened by the persistent (and arguably growing) social stigma attached to poverty: in addition to dealing with the financial and psychological hardship that comes with scarcity, America’s poor must contend with cruel assumptions about their character and social worth:
By the Reagan era, it had become a cornerstone of conservative ideology that poverty is caused not by low wages or a lack of jobs and education, but by the bad attitudes and faulty lifestyles of the poor.
Picking up on this theory, pundits and politicians have bemoaned the character failings and bad habits of the poor for at least the past 50 years. In their view, the poor are shiftless, irresponsible, and prone to addiction. They have too many children and fail to get married. So if they suffer from grievous material deprivation, if they run out of money between paychecks, if they do not always have food on their tables—then they have no one to blame but themselves.
In the 1990s, with a bipartisan attack on welfare, this kind of prejudice against the poor took a drastically misogynistic turn. Poor single mothers were identified as a key link in what was called “the cycle of poverty.” By staying at home and collecting welfare, they set a toxic example for their children, who—important policymakers came to believe—would be better off being cared for by paid child care workers or even, as Newt Gingrich proposed, in orphanages.
This perception hasn’t gone away, even as the recession has eliminated the number of decent jobs once held by well-educated and hard-working people, who upon joining the swelling ranks of the unemployed, are now subsequently seen as irresponsible, lazy, or otherwise at fault for their predicament (economic structural changes outside their control be damned).
The meager if still noticeable growth in jobs hasn’t changed much, given that most new position are in low-wage sectors like retail and fast-food that simply don’t offer enough to survive, nor provide much in the way of upward mobility.
What I discovered is that in many ways, these jobs are a trap: They pay so little that you cannot accumulate even a couple of hundred dollars to help you make the transition to a better-paying job. They often give you no control over your work schedule, making it impossible to arrange for child care or take a second job. And in many of these jobs, even young women soon begin to experience the physical deterioration—especially knee and back problems—that can bring a painful end to their work life.
Depending on where you live, such jobs are pretty much all there is to choose from, and employees have few resources or time available to the training or education they need to expand their options (and in any case, those alternatives are no longer as likely to improve your circumstances as they once were; if anything, the subsequent debt most people would need to take on to go those routes could worsen their predicament). This leads to the crux of the article:
I was also dismayed to find that in some ways, it is actually more expensive to be poor than not poor. If you can’t afford the first month’s rent and security deposit you need in order to rent an apartment, you may get stuck in an overpriced residential motel. If you don’t have a kitchen or even a refrigerator and microwave, you will find yourself falling back on convenience store food, which—in addition to its nutritional deficits—is also alarmingly overpriced. If you need a loan, as most poor people eventually do, you will end up paying an interest rate many times more than what a more affluent borrower would be charged. To be poor—especially with children to support and care for—is a perpetual high-wire act.
Most private-sector employers offer no sick days, and many will fire a person who misses a day of work, even to stay home with a sick child. A nonfunctioning car can also mean lost pay and sudden expenses. A broken headlight invites a ticket, plus a fine greater than the cost of a new headlight, and possible court costs. If a creditor decides to get nasty, a court summons may be issued, often leading to an arrest warrant. No amount of training in financial literacy can prepare someone for such exigencies—or make up for an income that is impossibly low to start with. Instead of treating low-wage mothers as the struggling heroines they are, our political culture still tends to view them as miscreants and contributors to the “cycle of poverty.”
If anything, the criminalization of poverty has accelerated since the recession, with growing numbers of states drug testing applicants for temporary assistance, imposing steep fines for school truancy, and imprisoning people for debt. Such measures constitute a cruel inversion of the Johnson-era principle that it is the responsibility of government to extend a helping hand to the poor. Sadly, this has become the means by which the wealthiest country in the world manages to remain complacent in the face of alarmingly high levels of poverty: by continuing to blame poverty not on the economy or inadequate social supports, but on the poor themselves.
It’s practically a coping method: instead of coming to terms with the intrinsic inequities and flaws of our economic system — which would require tremendous changes and considerable public investment — it’s much easier to view the matter on a individual level of analysis, which places the onus on the individuals (or perhaps a particular, often marginalized, subculture) to change. But given what few avenues there now are to improve one’s socioeconomic status, what more can the poor do?
Sure, a good number manage to climb out one way or another; we all know of at least one anecdotal or famous rags-to-riches stories. But those stand out precisely because they’re rare occurrences. The ranks of the poor are growing concurrently with the rise of inequality, the decline in well-paying jobs, and the gutting of programs once dedicated to providing assistance. It seems clear that as long as the means of self-sufficiency are out of reach, poverty will remain.
Sadly, I don’t have time to explore the issue further, but as always, I invite you to share your views.