What do we mean when we talk about “poverty and the poor”? How do we define it? How we understand it affects how we respond to it in our culture. Historically the way we have understood poverty is that it is something that people can control, rather than something that is much more complex. A socially systemic issue that makes it almost impossible for people to escape.
If poverty is seen as an individual problem than a community one, than we don’t have to address community concerns such as living wages, lack of affordable housing, lack of public transportation, lack of availability for quality childcare, and lack of healthcare. Unfortunately, the traditional view in our country I believe is that it is an individual concern; that if a person is having difficulty it is their own fault.
In addition to that, we are outdated on how we measure it . The data that has been used to define poverty in the U.S. was originated in the 1960’s and didn’t take into concern factors such as regional differences in the cost of living across the country. The government did release a new experimental poverty measure last year, however it will not replace the one currently in place. Even though the new version sees more people in poverty.
We need to re-evaluate how we understand poverty in this country and we need to look deeply at how to tackle this problem. Part of this involves challenging the beliefs we currently have. Jack Register, activist and social work professor at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, is aiming to challenge these beliefs in our society. As part of the social work department’s celebration for Social Work month, Jack Register is conducting an interactive experiential guided exercise that will give participants a firsthand look at the state of chronic crisis that plagues so many of our citizens.
This exercise walks participants into an alternate universe of second class living that many people do not experience. This poverty simulation is called Making Cents of Being Poor, and is being held on the UNCG campus on March 27, 2013. Jack Register explains,“The poverty simulation is a way for students to gain perspective about how they not only understand the concept of poverty, but also- and in a very small way- have an emotional response to trying to meet the needs of their hypothetical family. That is why we chose the name “Making cents of Being Poor.”
This event includes UNCG students, members of the community and participants invited from five other universities in North Carolina, including North Carolina A&T, and NC State. This will be a huge, all day event, participates and volunteers are still highly needed and lunch will be provided to those that participate. This is an extraordinary event to experience, it is open to the public to observe as well and all are more than welcome.
Photo Credit: Jack Register, UNCG professor and Rhonda Lang Bruner, a school SW in Forsyth County. Rhonda was a community volunteer who came to help out.
What Americans Think about Poverty and How to Reduce It
The 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty attracted little attention in 2015, and the 20th anniversary of welfare reform was barely noticed the following year. Although poverty tends to be overlooked by elected officials, policy experts, and the media, it remains a large and chronic social problem. According to the U.S, Census Bureau, 43 million Americans are officially poor, and millions more live just above the poverty line. Poverty has a big impact on health care, education, criminal justice, and other social realms and policy domains.
Given the relative silence at the elite level, I worked with three undergraduate students to review a variety of U.S. national opinion polls concerning poverty. We wanted to know what ordinary Americans think about poverty and efforts to ameliorate it – and whether their views had changed much over the last two decades. Our research was recently published in the Public Opinion Quarterly and includes suggestions for better questions researchers should ask in the future.
Current Public Opinion
The American public is generally sympathetic to the poor and supportive of greater government efforts to fight poverty. On the standard feeling thermometer questions – where people are asked to indicate degrees of warmth about various groups – scores for the poor are unusually high. Americans say they feel more warmly toward the poor than toward liberals, conservatives, the Tea Party, big business, or unions. When it comes to explaining poverty, Americans are more likely to blame it on forces beyond people’s control than on lack of effort. They recognize that many of the poor work but earn too little to escape poverty.
What should be done about poverty?
- Most Americans agree that government should “take care of people who can’t take care of themselves.” That responsibility includes guaranteeing every citizen “enough to eat and a place to sleep.”
- In 2016, over half of respondents to a Pew poll said that dealing with the problems of the poor should be a top priority for the President and Congress; an additional one-third said it should be an important priority. Poverty was a higher priority than climate change, tax reform, or criminal justice, but ranked somewhat lower than education or jobs.
- Most Americans think the country is spending too little on assistance to the poor. Only a small fraction, 10 to 12 percent, thinks too much is spent, while almost half believe that the poor lead hard lives in part because government benefits are inadequate.
- On the other hand, public support drops when questions refer to “welfare” or “people on welfare” – and the gap is especially large when spending is at issue. Few Americans think we should spend more on welfare.
An important additional point: Although our project was designed to describe public opinion more than explain it, we did see evidence that racial attitudes and welfare attitudes could be linked. Many whites feel that blacks on welfare could get along without it if they tried and that blacks as a group are not as hard-working as whites.
Most Americans are frustrated with past efforts to reduce poverty. A 2016 Gallup survey, for example, found dissatisfaction among 81 percent of respondents with how the federal government handles poverty. Similar results were found when questions were worded more broadly – to encompass efforts by the entire nation and not just government.
What Has Changed and What Has Not
Over the last two decades, Americans seem to have become more aware of the working poor, and more willing to believe that those living in poverty are having a difficult time even with government assistance. Also, blacks are somewhat less likely to be viewed as lazy.
But for most poll questions that have been asked repeatedly, the answers have been fairly consistent. It still matters, a lot, whether questions refer to welfare or to poverty. In that sense, the historic 1996 reforms – with their caps on spending for public welfare assistance, greater work requirements, tougher sanctions, limited eligibility for legal immigrants, and time limits – do not appear to have changed the public’s mind very much. “Welfare” and “welfare recipients” still have negative connotations.
Implications for the Future
Overall, Americans continue to have mixed views about poverty, and policymakers can use polls to justify either more efforts by government to ameliorate poverty or fewer efforts. Policymakers and citizens who want to do more will need to focus on the poor overall, not just welfare recipients. And it might also help to highlight success stories – where government efforts have helped people climb out of poverty – to counter the public’s pessimism.
As we reviewed the survey data, we were struck by the need for polling organizations to ask new and better questions. “Welfare” and “assistance to the poor” could refer to many things, and it would help to know much more about how the public feels about specific programs. In addition, asking questions about blacks and whites but no other important social groups seems outdated.
Finally, pollsters and researchers should try to learn much more about the public’s dissatisfaction with efforts to fight poverty. Do people consider all anti-poverty programs to be equally ineffective? Do they believe the national government has been less successful than state governments, charities, and churches in fighting poverty? Answers to these kinds of questions could help policymakers decide how best to help millions of poor Americans who remain vulnerable and need assistance. Americans sympathize, our data show, but remain conflicted about what can and should be done.
Changing the Lens on Poverty Research
Using an innovative technique to measure poverty, a Georgia Institute of Technology economics professor has found that more older Americans live in deprivation than official statistics suggest.
Shatakshee Dhongde, associate professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, found that 12.27 percent of senior citizens were deprived in two or more crucial areas, including multiple disabilities, low income, a lack of education, and severe housing burden.
Dhongde said the research illustrates a shortcoming in the official measure of poverty in the United States, which focuses solely on income. The federal government reported that 9.5 percent of older Americans were living in poverty in 2013. That is below the 12.3 percent rate found in Dhondge’s multidimensional poverty index.
Research Reveals Deprivation beyond Official Poverty Count
According to Dhongde’s research, nearly four in ten older U.S. residents reported being deprived in at least one of the four categories: multiple disabilities, low income, a lack of education, and severe housing burden.
Moreover, many of those living with multiple deprivations were not income poor. For instance, 3.6 percent of seniors experienced both multiple disabilities and severe housing burden, but would not appear in official poverty statistics because their income was above poverty line threshold.
Race plays a role, as well. Dhongde found that white senior citizens were less likely to be deprived, while Asian, African-American, and Hispanic seniors were more likely to be deprived. In fact, Dhongde found that 30 percent of Hispanic seniors were deprived in two or more dimensions.
Study Relies on Census Data
The study draws on the 2013 edition of the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which includes detailed data on economic, housing, educational, and healthcare circumstances of people living in the United States.
Dhongde, a faculty member in the School of Economics within the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, is in the vanguard of economic researchers examining multidimensional deprivation in the United States. Thinking of deprivation in a multidimensional manner is a way of looking beyond income while measuring poverty.
“The main idea is that you change the lens and look at overlapping deprivations,” she said. “So I’m not separately looking at what percent of the elderly population was deprived in X and what percent was deprived in Y and so on. Instead, I choose one individual and then analyze how many deprivations he or she is facing simultaneously.”
By examining multiple areas that can affect a person’s quality of life, Dhongde says the multidimensional poverty index can provide better insight into the population’s broader economic condition. It can also give policymakers tools to gauge where best to focus limited resources.
Critical Analysis of the System Changes Needed in the Child Welfare System
The child welfare system coupled with the juvenile and criminal justice systems have ultimately created and perpetuated the systemic constraints and social underpinnings that keep Black families court involved and monitored.
Data reveals that pluralism across systems yields, “much earlier contact with child protection, committing the first offense at least two years earlier than the general population; had been identified with mental health concerns but not referred to treatment; and had complex trauma histories.” This leaves Black women and girls vulnerable to navigate complex, bureaucratic systems that pathologize Black life and culture. Faced with challenges at the intersections of race, gender, and socioeconomic status, support across the economic spectrum is what families need in order to meet their needs and goals.
The US Department of Justice report, in 2015, Exploring the Impact of Criminalizing Policies on African American Women and Girls, highlights “the impact of criminalization policies on African American women and girls who are survivors of domestic and sexual violence, including the impact of arrest, detention, incarceration, and mandatory minimums.” The challenges and plural systems that undermine a family’s ability to meet those needs and goals were also discussed.
While the report centers the discussion on key points and recommendations for policymakers, child welfare, and the juvenile justice systems, it also facilitates the conversation on the “unintended and undesired consequences” affecting black women and girls. This includes the hyper regulation, monitoring, and criminalization of black girls. In order to address some of the gaps identified in the report, it is imperative that a multidisciplinary, multidimensional approach is developed, implemented, and evaluated. The paradox comes in when we consider the challenges of pluralism across systems.
“Criminalization includes state policies and practices that involve the stigmatization, surveillance, and regulation of the poor; that assume a latent criminality among the poor; and that reflect the creep of criminal law and the logics of crime control into other areas of law, including the welfare, systems” – Gustafason
Challenges faced by pluralism across systems
Within these systems, service users’ satisfaction, evidence based practice outcomes and effectiveness, recidivism to programs, etc. are programs which need evaluation and monitoring in order to measure effectiveness and program improvement. Across the board, within human and social services, allocation of funds for monitoring and evaluation of services is an afterthought. Child welfare programming, “specifically child protection services need funding and efforts for comprehensive oversight and evaluation.” Impacting families directly, but specifically, Black girls, program effectiveness and monitoring data analysis are a key foundation for discussions on program development, process improvement, and policy review.
Access to comprehensive training that encompasses the multilayered challenges of Black girls is imperative. These opportunities will provide a space to better equip and broaden understanding of the systemic underpinnings that impede and exacerbate their unique needs. They need professionals at all levels, who will advocate when systemic and bureaucratic injustices attempt to push them to the margins.
While standard operating protocol and procedures are readily available quality, innovation, relevance to demographics of the clientele is varied and unknown for the professionals within these systems, patriarchal, racial and capitalist ideologies are ever present. These ideologies present themselves through variance in child protective case classifications, options for in and out of home placements, length of court involvement, services referred, recommendation for child removal, etc. only to name a few.
Black girls need programming that mirrors the intersectional, co-occurring and multilayered aspects of their lives. Acknowledging and understanding how trauma, “manifests in delinquent behaviors, and how juvenile justice involvement can exacerbate the trauma,” assists in considering the harm in pluralism across systems.
This includes programming that acknowledges the many roles, barriers and systemic challenges that Black girls face in their families and communities. Data analysis and cross system communication and collaboration to identify “repeat families in the child protection system with whom traditional responses do not work” is a step towards programming that supports the Black family as a unit.
Speaking on the social work profession, Iris Carlton-Laney stated,“the profession maintains a discomforting silence when viewing inequalities and social conditions that affect African American families. Where this is true, the social work profession is helping to sustain societal oppression and facilitating the unequal distribution of power and resources.” Specifically, “social workers have a responsibility to intensively examine the ways that gender intersects and shapes” our lived experiences.
Working within child welfare and the juvenile justice system in six, I know that “girls who are in physical confrontations with a parent or guardian or other adult residing in the home are often responding to a failure to be protected from physical, sexual, or emotional harm.” The discomforting silence extends to Black girls and makes you question whether Black girls lives matters to social work.
Special attention should be given to a review of child protection policies, program existence and effectiveness, and referral to culturally relevant, trauma-informed services in an effort to increase outcomes for children and families. Recidivism factors, training resources for juvenile and family court judges, CASA’s involvement and county and statewide data should be continuously monitored and evaluated to increase the effectiveness in the child protection involvement for children of color especially black girls.
In order for collaboration, comprehensive services, and critical policy reform to occur, professionals from child welfare, juvenile justice, in addition to co-occurring (mental health, substance abuse) specialists, need to be at the policy-making table.
9 Answers To Burning Questions About Social Security
Since you began working for the man (your company), you’ve forked over a portion of every paycheck to the man (the government) in the form of Social Security Taxes. You haven’t had a choice in this matter.
Yes, a few semi-crackpots have told you that you can not pay these taxes if you disavow your SSN, but these types of people usually end up in standoffs with the government in remote locations.
So what exactly is Social Security Taxes? Who do they benefit? Why do you pay them? And where the heck did this policy come from?
You have burning questions and I have answers.
In this post, I am going to spell out the who, what, and why of Social Security. We’ll answer your burning questions in a way that doesn’t confuse you or bore you senseless.
Let’s get started.
Question #1: Where Did Social Security Come From?
On August 14, 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act. Originally the bill was going to be called the “Economic Security Act,” but it was changed to the equally boring “Social Security Act” when it was being evaluated by Congress.
Those guys have never been known for their creativity or liveliness.
Ernest Ackerman received the first payment ever – a whopping 17 cents. Even back in 1935, this was not a particularly large sum. Presumably, he saved this money so he could purchase a single beer after he retired.
The program was already a rollicking success!
Question #2: What Is The Purpose Of Social Security?
Most people think of Social Security as just a retirement program. This makes sense given that you can’t collect it before age 65 without a penalty. But, it also provides some life insurance and disability protection as well.
Let’s say that, God forbid, you are in a terrible roller derby accident. It can happen to anyone.
If you didn’t survive your accident, your dependents would receive benefits from Social Security. If you were severely disabled, you would also receive some compensation through what you had already contributed. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has done an extensive study on the data and statistics on Social Security benefits, and I will be sharing them with you.
In 2016, approximately one-fifth of the 60 million people who received Social Security benefits were either disabled or dependents of deceased workers.
Now that you have this knowledge, you can go all out in your next roller derby tournament.
Question #3: Who Is Eligible For Social Security Benefits?
If you’ve worked for 10 years or more, you’re probably eligible. In order to receive the minimum income of $1,260 per quarter, you need to have 40 credits (or quarters) of coverage.
There are a few odd exceptions to this. Pastors have the option of choosing to not opt-in to Social Security. Federal employees hired before 1984 can’t participate and railroad workers usually get benefits through a different system.
As long as you don’t fall into one of those categories, you should be solid.
Question #3: What Determines How Much You Receive In Benefits?
The amount you end up receiving is based on the amount you earned over the course of your life. The more you earned and paid in taxes, the higher the amount (not percentage) you receive.
Let’s say you’re a high-flying CEO earning a cool six-figure salary. You will pay a percentage of your salary in Social Security taxes, up to a maximum taxable amount of $118,500. When you retire (or are pushed out by a younger, better looking executive), you will receive benefits based on your earnings and what you paid in taxes.
But here’s the thing: the higher your earnings, the lower percentage you earn in benefits. In other words, if you make 45 percent of the average wage, Social Security will replace about half of your income. If you earn more, Social Security will replace a lesser percentage. It’s a progressive benefit.
As you get older, your benefits will be adjusted based on the cost of living. This is to prevent you from sinking into poverty and being forced to panhandle for change.
If you start drawing benefits early, you will receive a reduced amount.
Question #4: Why Is Social Security Important?
When you see that chunk of change being removed from every paycheck, it can be tempting to think that Social Security is just a waste of your money. But it’s not.
First, it’s an almost guaranteed retirement plan. The Social Security Administration estimates that 97 percent of people aged 60 – 89 receive benefits or will receive them. This functions as a safety net for retirees.
Second, it’s available to all people, no matter how much they earned. Unlike some programs, where you get the shaft depending on your earnings, everyone has access to Social Security funds.
Social Security matters for the United States, especially as the Baby Boomer generation hits the retirement age. Without it, many people would be left high and dry with very little in their bank account.
Question #5: Can You Live Off Social Security Benefits After You Retire?
Unfortunately, Social Security doesn’t pay enough to let you purchase a Lamborghini or a house in the Hamptons. In fact, the benefits are actually smaller than many people realize.
In 2016, the average benefit was only about $16,000 per year. Unless you’ll be living in a shack and eating noodles, that’s probably not enough to survive.
And, to make things worse, the replacement rate for wages is falling. In 2016, Social Security replaced about 39 percent of past wages, but it’s going to fall to about 36 percent in the future.
That being said, Social Security will still replace a significant portion of most people’s income and shouldn’t be discounted.
Question #6: Is Social Security Important For People Other Than Retirees?
It sure is. It matters to a lot of children in the United States. In 2014, more than 6 million kids lived in homes that received some form of social security income. This includes dependents of retirees, deceased workers, and the disabled.
You may not like giving up money for Social Security but think about the kids. You care about kids, right? RIGHT?
Social Security is also very important for minorities. Why? Because they often have less opportunity to save money and earn pensions. For those 65 and older, Social Security is 90% of income for Asian Americans, 45% for African Americans, and 52% for Latinos.
Finally, Social Security is critically important for women. It’s common knowledge that women earn less than men, take more time out of the workforce, and live longer than men. This combination makes it critically important to women, especially those who survive their spouses. In fact, about 97% of survivor beneficiaries are women.
Question #7: What Would Happen To Retirees If They Didn’t Have Social Security?
Just how important is Social Security to the elderly? Without it, 40% of those 65 or older would be below the poverty line. That is a huge number of people and will continue to grow as the Baby Boomer generation ages.
With Social Security in place, only 10% of those retirees are below the poverty line.
Social Security is really important to a lot of people.
In fact, 61 percent of elderly people rely on Social Security for the majority of their income. For one-third of those people, it represents 90% or more of their income.
Removing Social Security would create a massive problem for those who are relying heavily on the benefits to keep them afloat.
Question #8: Will The Social Security System Continue As Is?
That’s a bit of a dicey question. The Social Security Board of Trustees has said that, unless things change, funds will begin declining and 2020 and become depleted in 2034. When they are depleted, benefits will be paid out a reduced rate.
That reduced rate will start at around 79% and decline to 73% by 2089.
Of course, it’s not likely that you’ll be alive in 2089 unless science finds a way to dramatically increase the human lifespan. However, your kids will be alive, so this does affect them.
Let’s hope they fix things before then.
Clearly, Social Security isn’t a perfect system. It doesn’t have a huge payout after retirement and that payout will probably be smaller in the future. But it does play an enormous role in our society. Without it, millions of people would be in poverty.
Additionally, it functions as a safety net of sorts, so that if something does happen to you, you’ll receive at least some income.
Should you plan on living off Social Security? Of course not. But you can count on receiving something after age 65, and that’s a huge benefit.
Study Shows Tax Return Delay Could Hurt Low-Income Families
ST. LOUIS, MO – Millions of low- and moderate-income Americans who claim certain tax credits will have to wait weeks longer than usual this year for their federal income tax refunds because of a new law aimed at reducing fraud.
The delay could prove costly for countless families “in relatively vulnerable financial circumstances,” finds a new study from the Brown School and the Tax Policy Center.
The Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act (PATH Act) of 2015 requires the Internal Revenue Service to hold refunds claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC) until Feb. 15. Because of weekends and the Presidents Day holiday, the IRS said in a recent statement that affected taxpayers may not have access to their refunds until the week of Feb. 27.
“Many of these families file their returns early and use refunds quickly to pay down debt or for spending on necessities,” said Stephen Roll, research assistant professor at the Brown School’s Center for Social Development and co-author on the study.
“Delaying refunds will likely lead to additional financial hardships for some of these families, who in previous years had received and used their refunds before Feb. 15,” he said.
The study, “Delaying Tax Refunds for Earned Income Tax Credit and Additional Child Tax Credit Claimants,” is co-authored by Elaine Maag, senior research associate at the Tax Policy Center, and Jane Oliphant, program manager at the Center for Social Development.
“For the average American household, the tax refund is a nice yearly bonus that likely does not impact their finances in any major way,” Roll said. “However, for EITC or ACTC households affected by this delay in the refund, the tax refund is often the biggest single payment they’ll receive in a year.
“Imagine that you didn’t have much in savings and your income was entirely taken up by your expenses,” he added. “Then imagine that, without much warning, an entire month’s worth of your income just didn’t come for two or three weeks longer than you expected. That’s potentially what these households are facing.”
For the 2016 tax year, the Tax Policy Center estimates that on average EITC beneficiaries with children will receive a $3,314 tax credit. The median EITC or CTC family with children reported only $400 in liquid assets, and 69 percent reported credit-card debt at a median rate of $2,000. Fewer than half of these families reported they could access
$2,000 in an emergency, and barely one-third are homeowners.
What can impacted families do?
“Filing early may help, but only to an extent,” Roll said. “Even if you file on Jan. 23, the first day that the IRS begins accepting returns, there will still be a delay until at least the 15th of February. Filing early ensures that families will receive their refund as quickly as possible.”
Beyond that, Roll said, there are steps families can take to minimize the impact of this delay.
“For example, families should be aware of this delay and try to avoid taking on extra debt, and high-cost debt in particular, at a point when they may have to wait weeks to pay it off,” he said. Additionally, families may be tempted to rely on ‘refund anticipation loans’ that function as short-term loans to provide the expected value of the refund early.
“While these loans can potentially provide families with quick cash when they need it, they can also come with a number of fees or hidden costs that may cause more harm than good,” Roll said.
Windows into a Life in Poverty and Lessons for Social Workers
Living in poverty is more than not having enough money to meet an arbitrary threshold. For many, a life in poverty is one of perpetual disappointment, missed opportunities, self-loathing and blame. Recognizing these feelings in others, and the impact they have on us professionally, is an important step in creating change. A simple transaction at a thrift store, or a quick inventory of gas purchases, can open our eyes to so much more.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, I found myself browsing the racks at a nearby thrift store, shopping for clothes for my upcoming second child. As I haphazardly tossed one-dollar onesies and two-dollar leggings into a growing mound in my cart, I observed another woman, presumably a mom like me, anxiously moving through the store aisles. She carefully scrutinized each item and, even more carefully, examined the price tag. Surveying items that held promise, she would look at the cost and quickly place them back on the rack.
I encountered this woman again at the checkout. She had ended up with four or five items—clothing for a small boy–and paid for the items using carefully counted nickels, dimes, and pennies.
As I got back to my car, I couldn’t help but feel great sorrow for this woman; too poor to buy many of the second hand items she wanted for her young son, and pulling from the bottom of the barrel to provide him with a few essentials. As a mom, I could intimately relate to the deep-seeded desire to provide for your children, and the failure and humiliation we feel when we can’t do that as well as we feel we should.
I, however, had visited the thrift store because I am thrifty, not poor. I can’t stomach the prices at fancy children’s clothing stores for items my child will likely wear once. I have never been unable to purchase clothes for my kids for financial reasons. I have never had to worry that my family won’t have enough of what they need.
Of course, my assumptions could be off. There are undoubtedly multiple scenarios for the woman’s behavior, and there are certainly those who would presume this mom’s prior bad choices or poor money management had gotten her to the place she was that day. But as a social worker, these are the experiences I can’t help but internalize and analyze. Like many social workers and other helping professionals, I can’t help but feel the pangs of sadness and anxiety, observing the lives of those who struggle to make ends meet.
These observations offer a window into the reality of living in poverty; an unending series of difficult decisions and stress, feelings of unworthiness and humiliation, excited to watch your children grow, but scared about what it will mean for your tight budget. Research increasingly points to the impact of poverty on cognitive functioning and physical health, which is likely no surprise to those of us who have worked in the field. As social workers, observing and internalizing these feelings is a part of what makes participating in this profession so profound, yet often so painful.
This is certainly not my only experience which offered a glimpse into the daily lives of the poor, and if you gathered a group of social workers to discuss, they could most likely build a long list. Both in practice and in our daily interactions in the community, we see it. Some are more obvious. Observations of diapers not changed because there are too few to get through to the next pay, bare cupboards during a home visit, moms who stay with abusive partners to keep a roof over their children’s heads.
Others are less obvious. One dollar lunches at a fast-food restaurant, kids in too-small clothing. A mother snapping at her child who asks for something at the store, not out of anger at the child, but anger with herself for always having to say no. I keenly remember, several years back, watching a low-income parent at a birthday party interacting with the other moms and dads. One mom was gleefully sharing about an upcoming family event in the community. “Only five dollars per child!” she exclaimed. I saw the other mom hesitate, look down, shame in her eyes. Five dollars per child? Easier said than done.
My father, a life-long advocate for low-income people, has many times encouraged people to take a glance at the gas pumps in any given community when they stop for gas. In wealthy and middle class communities, pumps will show recent purchases of $30, $40, even $50 dollars. Full tanks, gas flowing until the pump clicks, symbolic of the abundance in the community. What about a glance at the tanks in poor communities? Purchases totaling $2, $4—gas purchased one or two gallons at a time, as money becomes available (sometimes borrowed or found) — to support a single trip to the store, or the doctor, or work. This strategizing with scarcity is a prime example of the difficult day-to-day decision making that plagues many in low-income communities.
Much like identifying signs of child abuse and neglect, social workers are often the first to observe these seemingly insignificant behaviors. And while others may be quick to blame poor judgement or character deficits for these unfortunate circumstances, we as social workers can see them as symptoms of a larger problem. We can choose to believe that all people, regardless of income, have the desire and the right to care for their families, have meaningful work, and participate in the community. We can choose to view these conditions as motivation for why we must take care of one another.
Internalizing the pain that these families and individuals feel, day after day, is an occupational hazard that we can’t completely avoid. Sometimes these feelings can seem like a burden too great to bear. Compassion fatigue is very real, and we must always remain mindful of the need for rigorous self-care. But it is important not to ignore these instincts, as it exactly these feelings of empathy and care for others that are at the root of our profession, and that can serve as a call to act. I would encourage us to use these experiences and our reactions as ammunition to become better helping professionals.
These interactions can provide us with needed inspiration to keep going in our pursuit of social justice. In daily practice, there are small opportunities. We can provide families with information on free community events so parents can still feel the pride and joy of giving their child a new experience. We can organize a clothing swap among low-income clients to share gently used items. If there are no options for free diapers in our community, we can work to create one. When interacting with clients, we can consider the physical, cognitive, and emotional implications for those living a life clouded by scarcity. More broadly, we can bring these issues to light to our decisions makers, locally and beyond, in the hopes of developing sustainable solutions.
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