I listened to TalkPoverty Live! and have some thoughts to share about how we should be addressing poverty in this country.
First of all, we should stop calling it “poverty”—in political campaigns or otherwise. It is people in “acute financial distress.” When we hear of people in distress we want to help them. When we hear that they are poor we ignore them because of all of the stigmas associated with being poor. “Acute financial distress” is a more accurate term too—it connotes a temporary predicament shared by many in our “new economy.” Poverty, on the other hand, is misperceived as a permanent condition, even though people slip in and out of being poor.
Having experienced acute financial distress, including being homeless, I think this is the central issue and major roadblock to eliminating poverty—the stigma that goes along with “being poor.” Lately, I feel like a modern day James Brown telling people to shout, “I’m Poor & I’m Proud. Sing it loud, Y’all!”
No joke. When you experience acute financial distress our society looks at you and says, aloud or not, “What did you do wrong?” and/or “What’s wrong with you?”
In my case, I became homeless because I refused to allow my mother, who was terminally ill with Alzheimer’s, to be placed in a nursing home. In the end, I was completely wiped out— physically, emotionally, spiritually and financially. There are many stories like mine. But people prefer the stereotypes to the real stories—it makes it easier to maintain bad policies.
Bad policies like TANF which Peter Edelman wrote about in a TalkPoverty blog last month. I didn’t know who Edelman was at the time. But I’ve come to learn that he resigned from the Clinton Administration in 1996 after the President signed welfare reform legislation. I researched why he did that and found out that Edelman was spot on. That legislation had two devastating effects: one, it dramatically reduced the amount of cash assistance that was available (for two years, believe it or not, I lived on a monthly general assistance stipend of $140.00); and secondly, it gave states nearly autonomous control of how and whether they provide cash assistance.
Now, this is where the stigma and these reforms intersect. Many of the people who administer social services (not the people working in the field who know better) also resent “poor people.” That’s part of the reason why programs are designed in a way that makes it almost impossible for you to get your life back on track after a financial or personal trauma. And it works. Most people give up and return to whatever situation got them into acute financial distress in the first place.
Case in point: I have been living on housing assistance in New Jersey the last four years or so. The state provides that assistance while a person applies for federally subsidized affordable housing. The understanding is that if you diligently apply for every affordable housing opportunity, they will help fund your housing until you are lucky enough to get one of the few federally-subsidized units.
But when I went to see my case worker in April, I was told that all extensions for the Housing Assistance Program were being terminated June 30th. No explanation; no recourse.
I was fortunate, because four days after meeting with my case worker I got a letter telling me there was an affordable housing unit available for me. This was a coincidence. But I can tell you, honestly, during those three days when I didn’t know where I’d be living in another month—after being a long-term caregiver for my mother, and then losing her and becoming homeless—I came seriously close to triggering the PTSD that I had worked so very hard for the last two years to deal with. I know many others, not so fortunate, who right now are totally freaking out. For what? Why do this to people? The point is, without federal regulation and guidelines to oversee how states administer social services, they can pretty much do as they please.
Right now I have SSI, food stamps and subsidized housing. So I’m good, sort of. My food stamp allowance comes to $6 a day. So I’ll be going to a Food Pantry later. I help them work it and they help me with food.
That’s the last thing I’ll say because I think most people don’t know it: there’s a lot of solidarity out here among people living in acute financial distress. That’s what’s working—in spite of social services that aren’t designed with those of us who are struggling in mind.
Though they were originally. See Robert Beezat’s excellent article on the Forgotten Lesson of the War on Poverty.