Reflecting on the Cruel Realities of Poverty

            Our Institute offers an outreach program, Partners for Self-Sufficiency, under contract with several social service agencies in our region that aims to assist clients receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) as they seek and/or try to maintain employment so as to leave public support or avoid having to accept it. I was privileged earlier this week to attend a meeting at which our professional staff reported on a share of the concerns with which they had been assisting clients. The items discussed sounded like a litany of the travails of the human condition.

            One very poor individual had so little dental care for so long that her natural teeth had to be pulled and replaced with dentures, which required some fancy negotiation with another public program for the necessary funding.

            Another person who is working diligently with our staff to address years of neglected mental health issues while maintaining the required number of employment hours to retain support recently became addicted to methamphetamines. Her children were taken from her as a result. Her condition also makes it challenging for her to remain employed and the loss of her children only deepens the pain and breadth of the difficulties linked to her fragile mental health.

            Meanwhile, another individual had a drinking problem that not only impaired his capacity to maintain a position, but also deeply affected all other parts of his life.

            Most of those whose stories I heard did not possess driver’s licenses for various reasons, so getting to jobs was exceedingly difficult in an area with limited or no public transit. Many, especially those who were drug addicted, also possessed criminal records as a result of larceny and theft aimed at securing funds to finance their addictions.

            The accounts I heard were arrestingly sad. Almost to a person each of these individuals whose stories were shared had or confronted a wide array of extremely difficult challenges, from alcoholism to drug abuse to mental illness. Many, too, had been victims of abuse, had grown up in deep poverty, were illiterate or had completed only rudimentary education, or were coping with an array of other illnesses or conditions. In each case, the staff reported these challenges with patience, good will and a startling matter-of-factness. Each member of the team shared stories of resilience and the small, but very important, daily successes related to assisting clients with their transportation, childcare and employment-related needs.

            None of the people whose stories were shared conforms to the modern American myth or stereotype of the individual on welfare who lies on a couch each day and has children out of wedlock which he or she can ill afford to support, while drawing assistance from the broader hard-working public for their sedentary and parasitic lifestyle. This is hardly to say that many of these individuals have not made poor life decisions. Some are by now hardened and coarsened by the vicissitudes and cruelties of their life experience. And many, if not most, continue to make poor choices. But these people are not lying about in penury with rotting teeth to take advantage of the good will of the larger population. They are not, in short, intentionally using (or misusing) the good will of that collective “we” to which many would-be elected leaders refer in speeches aimed at raising voter ire against “those people.”

            Instead, the individuals in the stories I heard are just that, individuals, with a variety of life experiences, aptitudes, coping capacities, maladies and hard-luck experiences. Many suffer from conditions which some would argue evince weak character, including drug abuse or alcoholism. Some exhibit painfully poor judgment, which, again, many would suggest is their own responsibility. Still others are fighting to rebuild their lives following past missteps and mistakes that together have resulted in a heart wrenching brokenness. None of these conditions knows economic or class boundaries. Alcoholism, drug addiction, weak character and poor choices are hardly the purview of the poor alone.

            There are people, of course, who know little or nothing of the lives of those here briefly portrayed, who do blame those individuals for their choices and mistakes and ask why the collective should help to support them. And undoubtedly, such a response contains a grain of truth. And all such responses, from the stereotypic trope of the welfare oaf to the claim that the alcoholic could stop drinking tomorrow if only he or she simply decided to do so, reflect the deep and characteristic American propensity to suppose that all ills can be “fixed” through determined individual action.

            What struck me overall as I listened at our staff’s recent meeting, however, was how profoundly misleading that assumption can be in the face of the complexities of these individuals’ lives. Literally tens of thousands of alcoholics—middle class, upper middle class, rich and poor— die each year unable to address their problems by themselves. The same is true of the drug addicted. We may say collectively (and again, many do) they should never have drunk or tried drugs, and thereby blame them as a group and individually for their own misfortunes, but that explanation does not reach the sheer human cost or toll on their families and on the greater society their lost lives represent. And the idea that this loss is irretrievable or these broken lives are without worth is perhaps the greatest wound to our society. The costs of these losses are cumulative and diminish us all.

            The same point may be made more generally regarding social support for the poor population whose stories I heard. These individuals receive limited assistance for a delimited period and for very restricted purposes because we are collectively not sure they are “worthy” of our kindness. That this attitude may be traced to the 1601 Elizabethan Poor Laws does not change the fact that it assumes the afflicted are largely responsible for their own condition. Notably, this view prevails by simply ignoring any other salient facts or circumstances that may be contributing to individuals’ situations. This orientation and disposition requires our staff members to be creative simply to help a woman gain an interview at a local fast food restaurant. It limits support for addicted individuals. And more generally, it assumes those who are poor or down and out must somehow be both the cause and remedy of their own fate. Would that these stories of real lives told such a simple tale. It would surely make healing the wounded and assisting the poor and illiterate a much more straightforward task. Instead, a public policy built on simplified shibboleths only makes it more difficult to provide help. One is led to wonder why democratic political mobilization must rely on such often misleading, stereotypic and broad gauged claims. The cost of doing so is likely incalculable.