Perceptions of Poverty

My family and I lived in San Antonio’s West Side for about five years before returning to Waco nearly four years ago so I could work for Baylor University. While we lived in San Antonio, the West Side community had approximately 150,000 documented residents and a median income of $19,000 per household. Families often had three generations living together in one household to defray expenses or to allow middle-aged children to care for elderly parents. If they weren’t retired, our neighbors were all employed and typically worked in the service industry along the San Antonio Riverwalk.

One neighbor in particular left an indelible mark on our family. Her name was Josie and she truly embodied the spirit of Jesus’ parable about the widow who gave all she had even though she was in poverty. When Josie had a birthday, she took us to dinner. When we could not travel to see our families for Easter, she would prepare Easter lunch and scatter eggs across her dirt-laden yard for our children to hunt. When she went shopping at thrift stores for clothing for her grandchildren, she always picked up something extra for my children. She was a generous woman at the core of her being. She was also incredibly hard working.

Josie went blind while we lived next door to her, and she lost her job because of it. Soon after, a social worker was able to help Josie get a job at the Lighthouse for the Blind making military apparel. The city bus for the physically impaired picked Josie up at her house at 5:00 a.m. every day and returned her home after 6:00 p.m. Even with this job, she did not make enough money to pay rent for her 600-square-foot apartment, utilities, medications, food and other necessities. She worked as hard as anyone I have ever known but did not complain about her plight.

Unfortunately, the norm I have witnessed in impoverished communities throughout the U.S. is that people are working very hard but are unable to get ahead. In fact, more than 13 million working families with children have incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. In Texas 78 percent of people living near or below the poverty line are working and have children. The poverty line in the U.S. is a gross income of $23,050 for a family of four.

America prides itself on being the proponent of the “rags to riches” story with many living the “American dream.” The original American dream, an idea discussed in The Epic of America, a book by James Truslow Adams, relied on one’s ability to rise through the classes according to your own abilities, regardless “of fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” While many would agree this idea revolves around the principle that hard work is the key to success, there is a group of people in America that faces almost insurmountable challenges to achieving their version of the American dream despite constant hard work, a point that David Shipler makes in his book The Working Poor: Invisible in America. This group, as the title of Shipler’s book indicates, is known as the working poor.

Unfortunately, the extreme cases of poverty seem to draw the most attention. Stories about billionaires who rose out of poverty or people taking advantage of government aid seem to dominate our perceptions about the impoverished. These perceptions mislead us to believe that hard work is always enough to draw someone out of poverty, and conversely, if people are in living poverty, they aren’t working hard enough.

However, the reality is that the working poor face many problems that the middle and upper classes find much easier to overcome. They face food insecurity, an inability to access proper health care and often lack a college education, which many jobs require. Society often has preconceived notions about who these people are and why they are in this situation. In reality, it is hard to define what brought them into poverty because they all have different stories and different personal struggles.

One of the primary problems is a lack of disposable income. In many cases, more than one-third of working poor families’ money goes to rent each month and more of it goes toward paying utilities. The remaining money goes to food, leaving little, if any, for extra expenses such as health care. Disposable income acts as a buffer in times of need, so problems that would merely inconvenience a middle-class household become crises for working poor households, a point that Shipler also makes.

Shipler points out that when problems like a sick child or a broken-down car arise, the working poor must often either take out loans — conveniently offered by predatory lenders — or ignore the problem until they have the chance to fix it. However, waiting to fix the problem often leads to more complicated concerns. For instance, a child who is sick with something that would be minor if treated immediately could become seriously ill, leading to even greater hardships in the future. The inability to pay for a car repair may prevent a person from making it to work each day, causing them to lose a much-needed job. Loans often cause just as many problems, plunging families into increasing debt and diverting money from their needs. Loans can even force them to take out more loans, starting a vicious cycle.

Therefore, if we insist upon stereotyping families in poverty, let’s at least get the stereotype right. The majority of families facing poverty in the United States are employed but underemployed. It’s time to work together and move families toward financial independence and spend less time ridiculing working class families for being in poverty.

Jeremy Everett, Director of the Texas Hunger Initiative.
Written with the help of Berkeley Anderson, Texas Hunger Initiative Intern