Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Talking about poverty

This last week many people (many family members, even) put cute little cards and videos on Facebook sharing the idea that poor people are poor because they refuse to work and are greedy, lazy, sons-of-whatever who just want to steal the money of the hardworking tax payers who should not have to pay for welfare for anyone no matter what. It's all tied up in the Republican party line on poverty.

They did it seemingly oblivious to the fact that saying someone is poor because they are lazy and therefore should just get a job, not get welfare, is just a fancy way of saying they brought it upon themselves, which the scriptures tell us not to do.

Nobody seemed to make the connection that if they knew someone who was really poor, this would be a horribly cruel thing to say to them, that they are lazy, worthless, unworthy of help, and obviously not interested in anything but leaching off other people and watching TV or they wouldn't be asking for help--because real people don't ask for help ever; they suck it up, suffer, work hard, and then don't need help anymore because they saved themselves. As everyone should.

It reminded me of Job, who is sitting and suffering and his friends are telling him that it's his own damn fault that he's suffering (which wasn't true) and he finally turns to them and says, "How long will ye vex my soul and break me in pieces with words?" (Job 19--it's worth a read if you want to know how it feels to be poor and constantly have people harp on you that it's your own fault and you should fix it yourself.)

I truly do not see how condemning and insulting the poor with little to no understanding of what they are living with is helpful. Truly, it is what Job said, vexing their souls and breaking them in pieces with words. And when a person is struggling with all their might to just get through, to hang on to faith and hope that things can get better, praying their shoes don't get visible holes and their kids don't have a field trip that costs $4 to attend, and working their tail off in the mean time, stealing any bit of hope or energy from them is beyond cruel.

If your entire understanding of poverty comes from crap like "20 Things Rich People Do Every Day" (or anything else Dave Ramsey ever wrote; Dave Ramsey is great is you have a steady sizeable income but are using it poorly. He is the worst enemy of the truly poor because people use his words to condemn the truly poor and justify not helping them because they "refuse to help themselves." Also because his advice is totally and completely worthless if you're destitute.)...anyway, if your understanding of poverty comes from that or from that one month right after you graduated from college before you got your first real job, then you might want to pause and think before you post anything about poverty anywhere. Do you really know what you're talking about? Where are you getting your information? Is it founded in reality--or even research--or politics? Does your idea of being poor consist of waiting a couple of days for the next paycheck to come? You might not know what poverty actually really is, and you should before you start trying to solve the problems.

So let's talk about real poverty for a minute, and why "just go get a job, you lazy bum" is a really bad, uninformed solution.

First of all, go read this: "Poverty Saps Mental Capacity".  A lot of the things that people like Dave Ramsey attribute to causing poverty are actually the result of poverty (things like not reading enough books, or showing up late for meetings).  This is why it is beyond cruel to "steal" a poor person's energy by making them deal with mean accusations. They already don't have enough energy to get them through, and if you really want them to be out of poverty and off welfare, kindness and support (emotional support, not necessarily financial support) will go a lot longer way than accusations of laziness or other cruelties you can heap on them, as Job was trying to explain to his friends.

Secondly, a large majority of poor people are either working or looking for jobs actively. (Notice that the 37% of "not working" include millions of people who are looking for work.) In fact, the most recent statistic I've seen said that less than 1% of welfare recipients are using the system wrong or committing fraud. So the idea that is spread around of the "welfare queen" is largely a myth. Over 99% of the people who are getting help actually need it.

Also, 77% of people will use the "safety net" by getting government help (food stamps, "welfare," housing assistance, medicaid, etc) at some point in their adult lives. That's almost everyone.  That means almost everyone is poor at some point. This is not a rare or unique experience. It's incredibly common. Far more common, in fact, than never needing help.

Obviously, nobody wants a whole country full of people living happily off handouts. It's not sustainable and it's not realistic. But here's the thing: poor people don't want that either! The vast majority don't want to be on welfare and would give anything to get off--and they're giving everything they can. But we can't just get rid of the safety net because 77% of adults need it at some point, and it's unfathomable that we would even consider letting people starve to death or die of preventable, easily treatable illnesses like pneumonia.

So let's take as our basic goal that all people who are able to work are supporting their own families, without being on welfare.

Accomplishing this goal requires some agreements.

First of all, we have to agree that solutions to poverty that are harmful to families are not actually solutions because strong, stable families are the key to stopping multi-generational poverty. If we destroy the families, we do not succeed in ending poverty but merely push it off to the next generation. And the next.  So all solutions have to increase family stability, not decrease it.

We also have to agree that solutions to poverty cannot wreck a person's health or body because that drops them right back into poverty again, but as disabled people who can never get out of poverty because it destroys their ability to work. This is why we can't get rid of food stamps (or lower them to the point that people can't buy healthy food) or medicaid (even for adults). If people are not healthy enough to work, they are stuck in poverty forever. Food and medical care are steps out of poverty because they give people enough health to work. Take those away and it's actually counter-productive.

And we also have to agree that long-term solutions to poverty have to include taking into account individual circumstances that individuals cannot overcome without help. This would include mental illnesses (like Depression), treatable but untreated disabilities (like ADD), and having all your training and experience in an area that no longer can support you (like having done construction all your life but the construction industry collapsed, as in 2008).

And, finally, we have to acknowledge the reality that getting a job is not usually an overnight thing. It takes time to find postings of jobs, apply for them, wait for interviews, etc. You can destroy your chances, of course, but you can also do everything right and not get hired. You cannot force someone to hire you.

So: 1. Family has to stay intact; 2. Health has to stay intact; 3. Sometimes people need help; 4. You can't make someone hire you. Can we all agree on those four things?

Finally, for the LDS people, any solution to poverty cannot interfere with a person's ability to keep their covenants, including that to multiply and replenish the earth (so you can't really condemn them for having more children or condition their receipt of help on them not having any more children) and to keep the Sabbath day holy (which means you can't just go out and get any old job, doesn't it?), among others (can you ask a faithful LDS member who is poor to just work as a bar tender? To be a stripper? To dance at a casino? Or deal at a casino? You see the problem?).

So here's the solution I see all the time: Cut welfare. It will make people hungry and they will stop being so lazy and go out and get a job--anyone can get hired at WalMart or Driving Trucks.

So, how does this fit in to our 4 agreements? Well, driving trucks is out because of number 1. If you take a parent away from an already fragile family, you have problems with number 1, and long-haul trucking is that. Not only that, long-haul trucking is bad for your health (according to my friends who have been truckers).  So that's out by number 2 as well.

This brings up another point that I hadn't mentioned: Poverty Traps. Sure long-haul trucking is, on the surface, a great solution because the training is "Free" and the pay is good. But it turns out that free training is more akin to indentured servitude than a real job. You have to work off the "free" training at a lower pay rate. And some of the companies treat you poorly, pressuring people in such a way that they are either afoul of the company or afoul of the law. If you choose to strictly obey the law, you end up having to pay the company back for your training, and poor people can't afford to do that.

It's not a good solution because it's a trap.

There's a local short-haul trucking company here in town that is a similar trap. You take a job delivering for them on a regular route, and they offer to pay a tolerable (not very good, but above minimum) wage. Then they give you a route that cannot be accomplished in the required amount of time unless you speed. The company offers to pay your speeding tickets. But then you get enough points on your license that you lose your license and they fire you. Now you are without a license and without a job. Worse off than you were before. It wasn't a solution. It was a trap.

Many, many of those "why don't they just go do _____?" kinds of jobs are actually traps.

There's also another kind of trap. Almost all of those "anyone can work at WalMart" kinds of jobs pay too little. So sure you get a 40-hours-a-week job, but it only pays $10 an hour. This is above minimum wage, but it comes out to a total of $1600 a month BEFORE taxes. This is not a large enough amount of money to get you off welfare, but it takes all your time, so there isn't time or energy enough left to get off welfare. And there isn't really any chance in a giant company like WalMart to "work your way up." And if you did work your way up to a better job (like night cashier), the better paying jobs often break rule number 2 (ruin your health either by injury from lifting or other strenuous work or by making you work night shifts, which are bad for your health as well as for your family life).  And "better paying" is still not over $17 an hour, which leaves a family with only one wage earner still in poverty--off of "welfare" but still on food stamps and medicaid. And that's if the employer keeps you on 40 hours a week. People who work these jobs tell me invariably higher pay comes with lower hours, so you can end up worse off with higher pay. And, since everyone is easy to replace with a kid who will work for less, you can't really try fight it.

What good is a job if it doesn't do anything but leave you stuck on welfare for the rest of your life?

And getting two full-time jobs is not really an option without breaking rules number 1 and 2, especially if you have kids.

All of this combined with the reality that you can't make someone hire you at all, and you can see that saying "Just go get a dumb job" is not as easy or useful a solution as you think you're providing. And, by the way, no, WalMart will not hire anyone who walks through the door.

So this brings us to number 3 above: Sometimes people need help. Almost all of the people I know (and I know a lot) who are stuck in poverty are in the position that either they need help with a mental illness (most of them with depression, but some are bipolar or have other issues) or with a disability (mostly things like ADD or ASD that has not been diagnosed or treated ever in their lives and they don't realize they have it). Getting those disorders and disabilities diagnosed and treated is next to impossible without money. Even if you are on Medicaid, it's next to impossible because nobody actually takes Medicaid unless they are new in the field or can't keep other patients/clients because they're awful at what they do. Despite what the media tells you, it actually is reasonable to assume that most people who aren't successfully supporting themselves wish they were, and are willing to work for it, but need help. And a great majority, I would guess, fall into one of these two categories and need help with the underlying cause of their inability to get or keep a job. People with ADD, for example, need medication, often need counseling, and most need some form of vocational rehab because something about ADD plants people into exactly the wrong careers for their set of talents and challenges. That, combined with the poor people skills that often attend ASD, ADD, and other disabilities and disorders (like depression), lead these people to have a terrible time choosing the right job, keeping the job, and getting another when the job fails (which it invariably does).

Saying "just go get a job" to these people is impossible. They actually can't do it. And denying them the help they need condemns them to never get out of poverty. It's cheaper to get them help than not. Even when they have a job, the job often takes so much time and energy for so little pay that they don't have the time (or can't get off work) enough to get help. This is especially true for the poor self-employed. Every day off is a day with no pay, so getting help for depression or ADD means going without pay, which they can't afford to go without. It's a trap, too.

There is no solution for these people without help. Expanding and improving the vocational rehab system so that you don't need a doctor's note to join and so that the result is having a suitable job, including coaching getting through the hiccups and social rules that attend having a job would go a long way to solving this. Anyone getting government aid should automatically be allowed to get vocational rehab, without a referral from a doctor. It would be cheaper in the long run than keeping people on welfare.

The other thing people need help with is job re-training. If they have all their experience and training in a field that collapses, it isn't their fault that they can't work in that field anymore, and they really can't get a job in another field without help. And here's the kicker: if you have no money, you can't get training in a new field. Training costs money. And poor people haven't got money. And, if they're working a "junk" job to try their best to make ends meet or to qualify for aid (yes, you do have to have a job to get help), they don't have time to get training, either, and can't afford the physical, mental, and emotional energy it takes to learn an entirely new trade. What's more, if they do have to learn a new trade, they have to start at the bottom and work their way up the pay scale--and if they can't do that quickly, they're once again stuck in poverty no matter what. If a job change doesn't lead them fairly quickly off food stamps, what good does it do?

Another problem with job re-training is that people often are on their own to choose a new career. But without guidance and counselling, which cost money, they often choose the wrong career. And, unfortunately, they don't know they are in the wrong career until after the training is done (and the grants and loans used up and coming due). I know many people who got all the way to the end of a degree only to discover either they actually didn't like the work you get from it, or there was no work available in that field, or they couldn't pass the certification test for one reason or another. Re-training without guidance is not a solution to poverty. It's just more debt and more time wasted on welfare as you have to start over. Again. It's incredibly discouraging, expensive, and difficult to have to face retraining and failing over and over. Especially if the reason you are failing is actually untreated ADD or depression or ASD.

Besides re-training, other things that require money often stop people from getting jobs and also need to be honestly addressed somehow. You can't get a job if you don't have the money to print a decent resume. You can't get a job if you don't have clothes that you can interview in. You can't get a job if you can't afford transportation to and parking fees for an interview. You can't get a job if you can't afford to get a government-issued ID--Driver's Licenses aren't free, and neither are birth certificates or passports! You can't get a job if you can't access the internet to do job searches--and even some public libraries charge a fee unless you have a card, and you can't get a card without an ID, which costs money.  You can't start a business without money. You can't get a college or trade school degree without money. You can't even do a pizza delivery job or newspaper route unless you can afford a car, gas, maintenance, and insurance. You can't get a job if your teeth look horrible because you couldn't access dental care. You can't get a job if you can't see well enough but can't afford new glasses, or if your old glasses are taped together. You can't get a job if your only pair of shoes is ugly, you can't afford makeup, or your hair cut is horrible. You see the problem? And when you have money, you don't think that the 25 cents it costs to print a resume at the library is prohibitive, but there have been times when I didn't even have 3 cents to spare. I am not joking or exaggerating. Any single cent you have to spend in order to get a job can prevent a person from getting out of poverty. And solutions to poverty have to take this into account.

So I guess what I'm saying is the discussion is oversimplifying the problems and taking them without any understanding of what poverty actually is, or even what the proposed solutions even mean. It's all caught up in "how dare you take my money" without any understanding that it costs more to leave people in poverty than to take honest, effective steps to get them out! (And "just get a job" doesn't work for that. It is not effective, and often not particularly honest, either.)

And until we include the realities of the problems and the solutions in the discussion, we're just being mean to the poor in order to pat ourselves on the back and absolve ourselves of any responsibility in the matter.

Coming back to Job, chapter 26, where Job is again answering his friends, "How hast thou helped him that is without power? How savest thou the arm that hath no strength? How hast thou counselled him that hath no wisdom? and how hast thou plentifully declared the thing as it is? To whom hast thou uttered words? and whose spirit came from thee?"

The poor have no power. They hardly have power to do basic things you take for granted. Having the power to not be poor anymore is a ridiculous thing to insist they have. They are the arm that hath no strength. And yet they're trying anyway. But consider: How has thou counselled him that hath no wisdom? Did you just throw out a pat answer and move on? Or did you carefully, thoughtfully ask questions, find out the realities and truths, pray about solutions, and charitably (true charity, I mean) offer to help in ways that were respectful and not demeaning, empowering and not belittling?

It is a valid question Job asks.  Because Jesus says when we have done it unto the least of these, we have done it unto Him.

When we are talking about poverty--especially to the desperately poor--whose spirit came from our words?

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