I had an interesting (and mostly unproductive) conversation in the comments section of an Instagram ad that made me realize we don’t understand poverty and low-income cycles as well as we should. I was making fun of an ad for an app that showed someone not realizing they were spending an extra $200 each month in subscriptions, so I commented that having an extra $200 a month could get me out of the low-income cycle.
I was surprised to receive a lot of comments telling me that if I just picked up a side job I could “easily pay off my debt” and watched with horror as debates about how “the laziness of my generation” shouldn’t be coddled broke out between strangers who weren’t intending to listen to each other.
Despite my attempts at explaining how “just a few more hours a week” doesn’t make as big of a difference as people think, it only made people angrier. So, I deleted the comment, and I now present the problem to you. An important disclaimer: I am just as clueless as the next person and only have some half-baked theories, and I hope this article opens a discussion for thoughtful readers such as yourself to present new ideas and perspectives.
While the initial response to “just throw money wherever we see a lack” certainly has immediate benefits, it doesn’t solve the problem long-term and is less efficient with how we spend money collectively. I might be able to pay off your debt, but have I given you the tools you need to stay out of it? I’ve given you a home, but have I put you in a position to maintain it, or have I just put a heavier financial burden on you?
Many factors go into people getting stuck in difficult financial situations. On a tight budget, the gray line of what is necessary and what is not can cause problems in the long run. The run-of-the-mill health insurance plan will help you get by, but all it takes is one cold or injury to find yourself out an extra hundred-some dollars. That rattling noise in your car might be annoying, but can you afford to fix it? And if you do, is it worth the money for how old your car is? You’d buy a better investment, but you can’t afford it (Just like you can’t afford to be without a car).
“So just work more hours/switch jobs,” you say. It certainly seems like an appealing option. But are there any jobs that pay more available within your area? Even if you find a job with better pay, you’ll have to account for the benefits like health insurance and retirement plans that you’ll lose when switching from one company to another. So staying with the same company and working more hours seems like the best option, but are you paid hourly or salary? Either way, there’s probably a reason why you haven’t picked up those hours yet, such as medical complications, taking care of an elderly parent, the schedules of children, or perhaps even the hours of the second job you most likely work if you’re in this cycle. You’d put the kids in daycare, but that totals to around another $300 a week that you certainly don’t have.
If you’re in the financial bracket above the poverty line, you’ll receive no government assistance for any of the problems mentioned, leaving you stretched on an already tight budget. Even if you receive government aid, an extra $200 might seem easy enough to make, but it doesn’t account for the $500+ you’ll lose in assistance. Realistically, you’d need to make at least $700 more a month to get out of that cycle.
My suggestion is this: the poverty problem doesn’t need money; it needs support. Sure, some grocery assistance here and there certainly helps, but how much better would it be to regularly invite the people around you over for a nice meal they don’t have to prepare? Some free or less expensive babysitting could also create time for an overworked parent. If you’re unsure of how to help directly, there are local programs that help with assistance such as meals, childcare, and so on. You could also see what needs the local public school has; whether you work with the school or create an outside program, anything involving career/college planning, financial education, health management classes, drug prevention, mental health resources and so on goes a long way in breaking generational cycles.
Maybe, at the end of the day, if we looked at the poverty problem as “What am I doing wrong?” rather than “What are they doing wrong?” we could make the little amount of money that we all have stretch further than we ever imagined. Perhaps if we all set our radical individualism aside and stopped trying to make everyone (including ourselves) so isolated in our independence, we could all live a more relaxed and fulfilling life in community together.