It’s hard to believe that anyone thinks the poor, in this country, have an easy, work-free life. There’s an assumption among a certain segment of the population that government benefits are enough to enable someone to ease back and voluntarily give up looking for a job. The reality is that poverty, especially now, is more like quicksand. Once you fall into it, it’s harder and harder to get out. Opportunity to improve one’s life has disappeared for most Americans, especially those who are poor. As The Atlantic wrote not long ago: “The American Dream isn’t dead. It just moved to Denmark.”
Who are the poor? Most of us. Research has shown that, more than half of all Americans, at some point in their lives, will spend a year either in poverty or close to it. Those in poverty don’t willingly choose to stay there. None find it easy. Charles Blow wrote a column in the New York Times recently that offered only a few of the many examples of how painful it is to be poor. He was responding to a Pew Research Center survey showing how many Americans believed that the poor now have it easy, thanks to government benefits that supplement whatever they are able to earn in minimum wage jobs.
Blow offered a series of anecdotes that dramatized how poverty can become a painful trap. It’s essentially a life of mere endurance, without hope. He described, borrowing an oxymoron from James Baldwin, how expensive it can be to live in poverty. First, and most significantly, the poor cannot make enough to simply pay their bills, let along pay off whatever debt that have accumulated paying those bills in the past. Living on credit becomes a lifeline that frays more and more with each passing year, as the debt deepens. There is no way to work oneself out of this hole: any movement at all simply brings you deeper. It’s quicksand.
Blow describes how any effort to get out of poverty only makes it worse for the 11 million Americans currently living under the poverty line:
• Being unqualified for loopholes, compared to the wealthy, the poor pay a larger percentage of their income to the government in taxes. The New York Times reported: “In 2015 the poorest fifth of Americans will pay on average 10.9 percent of their income in state and local taxes… the top one percent will average 5.4 percent.”
• The poor cannot afford to put money into a bank, given the exorbitant fees generally charged on accounts with a low balance. Therefore, they have to pay “between four percent and five percent of a payroll check just to cash” it. Money orders to pay monthly bills cost a fee as well.
• The poor are routinely ignored when in need of a loan, but credit cards are notoriously easy to get, and they usually come with usurious interest rates. So household debt for the poor will be accumulated in the most costly forms of credit.
• The only way to move up the income ladder, if at all, is through education, either learning a trade or with a conventional college degree. Education is debt even for recipients of Pell Grants from families with income under $ 40,000. They need to supplement their grant with significant student loans.
• Just getting to and from school or a job eats up an incredible percentage of the poor’s income. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights says: “Low- and moderate-income households spend 42 percent of their total annual income on transportation.”
• And if the poor somehow find a way to own a car and lower their transportation costs they become targets of police who rake in revenue with stops, fines, summonses and arrests, as the Attorney General recently pointed out about arrest patterns in Ferguson, MO. Blow writes, “In 2013, the municipal court in Ferguson — a city of 21,135 people — issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses, mostly driving violations.”
And when the poor can’t afford to pay the traffic fines, they are arrested. The self-perpetuating cycle of poverty simply gets worse.
Blow points out these are only the most obvious examples of how poverty breeds more poverty, even for those who work the hardest and try their best to overcome it.
In the weeks and months ahead, I intend to start offering some potential ways to initiate a sustained process for changes needed to get so many Americans out of this dreaded quicksand.