Why is it that when politicians start talking about poverty, they stop talking about people? Even the good guys, the progressives who want to end poverty, are prone to this.
When you talk about poverty, you’re talking about people, even if you’re more comfortable hiding behind statistics oversimplified moral proclamations and judgments. You’re talking about me, so let me tell you about me.
I’m 27 years old, and I’m disabled due to severe, chronic mental and physical illness. I’m not stupid or lazy or morally lacking. I would love to get a job. I’d love to finish my undergraduate degree and go to law school. Ever since I was a kid and realized I could get paid to fight with people, I’ve wanted to be a lawyer–but I’m not above working less professional jobs to get there. I’ve worked in a fast food restaurant, a hotel, and a hands-on science museum. I’ve worked as a nanny and tutor for kids with developmental disabilities. I’ve volunteered coaching Special Olympics teams, doing home repairs for low-income seniors, working in an alternative juvenile justice program, and teaching creative writing to second-graders. For the last two years, as I’ve been able, I’ve been working on a number of political campaigns and with issues advocacy groups. I’m not opposed to hard work, and I’m not bumming off the welfare system. I’m just too busy fighting my nervous system and my immune system to be able to work right now.
As a result, I’m completely dependent on SSI and SSDI to survive. I am allotted $740 per month, which comes out to $8,880 per year. For comparison purposes, the 2014 poverty line for a household of one is $11,670 per year. I share a one-bedroom apartment with two other people, and that costs me $400 a month. During the winter, our heating costs–we have a pellet stove and oil heat–often top $100 per month. I can’t afford a car, but public transit where I live is severely underfunded. I have to take at least two buses each way just to go grocery shopping, and it’s 3 buses and a half-mile walk to my doctor’s office. My regional transit authority offers reduced fares only for people with mobility impairments, not other disabilities, so I have to pay full fare for these trips. There’s a food bank in town, but it’s not on a bus line, so I can only go there when I can find somebody to give me a ride. I get a little over $200 per month in food stamps, but my illness requires a very restrictive diet, and it’s more expensive than the average diet. By the third week of the month, I’m usually down to eating rice and peanut butter because that’s all I can afford that doesn’t make me sick. Sometimes, I even run out of that. I have medical expenses that aren’t covered by my insurance, and many of those bills have gone to collections because there’s just no money. I alternate paying my phone bill or my electric bill each month.
And now Social Security has decided that they over-paid me last year. See, on disability, you’re not allowed to have more than $2000 saved, but that’s laughable because I’ve never been able to save anything since I became disabled. But the SSA has decided I have $1500 in a secret bank account. The bank tells me that the account number the case worker provided me with doesn’t exist, and I have given her documentation attesting to this. But now they’re going to take $75 a month out of my checks each month until the alleged overpayment is repaid. Yes, you heard that right: I’m being penalized for money I don’t own and my bank says doesn’t exist.
But when politicians talk about poverty, this isn’t what they talk about. They don’t talk about the utter hopelessness of a system that traps you in poverty and penalizes you for imaginary errors. They don’t talk about what it’s like to ration grains of rice so that maybe you won’t be quite so hungry at the end of the month. They don’t talk about what it’s like for it to be 5 degrees outside, but you don’t have heat or hot water because you can’t afford to buy more oil until next month.
Occasionally somebody mentions child hunger or homeless families–everyone feels sorry for kids because they didn’t do anything to deserve to live in poverty (yet). But the implication is that if you’re an adult who’s impoverished or hungry, it’s your own fault; you deserve it. I mean, you should just go get a job. It’s not that hard. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps or starve to death quietly.
(This post brought to your by the letter P and a very frustrating online town hall by a candidate who calls himself a bold, progressive leader but only talks about CHILD poverty and hunger and has staffers who won’t give him questions about why we shouldn’t talk about ending poverty, hunger, and homelessness for EVERYBODY.)