Until I reached my early 20s, I believed that my childhood had fewer financial advantages than the average childhood. Once I gained more life experience, I saw that my family hadn't been as poor as I thought we were.
That doesn't mean we weren't poor, though. We wore hand-me-downs, didn't go on vacations much, qualified for reduced school lunches, things like that. But we were “poor with potential.” When I arrived, my parents were in their very early 20s, and my dad was at the beginning of establishing his farm. While they didn't have much money at that point, they knew how to manage it. And while they didn't have much income coming in from jobs, they knew what to do to make that happen. Things started to change when I was a teenager. In fact, my youngest sibling remembers a completely different childhood — vacations and new carpet, but nothing about the really difficult times.
Through the years, my eyes have been opened to the ugliness of what it really means to be poor in the US (which is, admittedly, different from other parts of the world). My kids go to a school where 67 percent of the students are low-income. A couple of acquaintances have also taught me a lot about the cycle of generational poverty.
Brandon (as I'll call him) became a single father while still a teenager, which immediately limited some of his career choices. And not only that, he has difficulty finding child care on second and third shifts. Last year, he wanted to borrow money from us against his tax refund to buy a different vehicle. We said no, but somehow he found the money anyway. He couldn't afford to insure it, however, which resulted in multiple offenses, traffic tickets and supposedly even a night in jail.
And then there is Leah, who was raised by parents with drug addictions. She's had some problems with drugs herself, and recently got out of prison for multiple felonies. Her new boyfriend beat her up last weekend, and her paycheck of $53 a week doesn't even cover her rent, let alone groceries, and utilities. But since one of her felonies was for retail theft, it's been difficult for her to find a job. So, her tiny paycheck meant she couldn't pay the rent, or she faced eviction. There aren't any homeless shelters in our county, and the next county does have a homeless shelter, but said that she would have to prove residency in that county to be allowed to stay there. Um, okay. The next step was to call family and ask them for her. Most of them have drug problems, and since she's trying to stay clean, she wants to avoid them if possible. An aunt not on drugs refused to help. She has no community to help her.
I could go on, but do you need more information to see these two people have some challenges? We want to help — and I mean, really help — them. Although they've asked us for money, it's just a band-aid for a much bigger problem. Our first idea was to help Brandon get through college so he could find a better job. Unfortunately, his idea of college was one of those for-profit colleges that, in my opinion, prey on potential students like Brandon. Next, we wanted to help him find a job. So we introduced him to someone with connections who eventually found him a job…that he lost a few weeks later. It was then we realized that teaching him to fish was going to take a lot more than handing him the fishing pole and some bait. He doesn't seem to know what he needs to go fishing in the first place. Helping him requires more than just saving money through his (sadly) multiple job losses. He has no assets and frequently can't pay bills like his phone bill.
Unfortunately, Brandon and Leah aren't alone. According to www.povertyusa.org, 15 percent of the US lives in poverty, including one in five children and 30 percent of single-parent households headed by women. I've long had the goal of somehow helping fight rural poverty, so I also wasn't surprised to learn that a higher percentage of rural people live in poverty compared to urban populations.
It's one thing to read statistics and it's quite another to sit in dark apartments with empty refrigerators and wonder how to improve your life. How can people like Brandon and Leah dig themselves out of this hole their families have been mired in for generations?
In 1964, President Johnson kicked off the War on Poverty. Before that, few programs were available to feed the hungry. Now there is, among others, the SNAP (formerly called food stamps) program, which provides food products for low-income households, the National School Lunch program, or WIC, a program that provides formula and baby food for infants. This doesn't even include food pantries that are found in many of the small towns around me. My employer, a community college, has started a Food Share program. Employees can bring in shelf-stable food for the hungry students to take. It seems like no one should be going hungry, right?
In my own community, there are multiple sources of free clothing, so this also shouldn't be an issue. As I mentioned, my kids attend a low-income school. The teachers have a stash of snow pants, coats, hats, and gloves to hand out as needed.
And then there's shelter, a necessity in the sub-zero temperatures that most of the US has been having this winter. Unfortunately, rent is expensive, and even more unfortunately, eviction usually awaits those who can't pay the rent. And eviction often leads to homelessness. There are government programs, like HUD housing that offer reduced rents to low-income people. But one thing that excites me is something that I've only just started hearing about: group homes with mentors.
A violence-free home is opened to women with children (usually). They learn budgeting, cooking, housekeeping, and eat meals together with the other people in the home. Mentors live in the house with them and are the ones who teach these skills. These women are encouraged to go to college, and child care is arranged for them while they are working or going to school.
I am still trying to think of ways to help, not enable, Brandon and Leah, but it feels like an uphill battle. Are these programs that I have mentioned enough to drive poverty away from them? I feel like the answer is more than a government program, but I am just not sure what it is.
Lisa Aberle is a college professor by day and a freelance writer by night. Always an aspiring writer with an interest in money, she once ironically misspelled “mortgage” during a spelling bee. Most of her current adventures take place on the four-acre mini-farm she shares with her husband in the rural Midwest (where she writes with gel pens whenever possible).