Poverty itself is a barrier to work

In families that can’t afford diapers for their children, adults miss an average of four days of work or school each month, according to a survey conducted by the National Diaper Bank Network and Huggies. Three out of five families experiencing diaper need reported that they missed opportunities to earn or learn because they could not send their children to day care, which typically requires parents to supply disposable diapers. That is a lot of lost productivity. The average full-time or salaried American worker lost just under three days work because of injury, illness or some other unexpected cause in the entire year of 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Having spent my career advocating for families in poverty, I have often heard: “They ought to work harder!”

My answer: “They are dying to.”

Work is often touted as the way out of poverty. Yet poverty itself is often a barrier to work and certainly to advancement for those who do manage to land and keep jobs.

I got into the business of distributing diapers when I was a social worker assigned to chronically homeless families. One client needed to attend job training to qualify for cash assistance. She had access to subsidized child care, but she could not come up with the supply of disposable diapers that the child care center required. There were no programs that provided free diapers – including SNAP and WIC. The mom wanted to learn a trade and better support her family. But she was in a no-win situation.

The average cost of diapering a baby is $18 per week. That is simply not doable for some parents. Families in the survey reported “stretching” diapers by leaving children in them longer and borrowing money to buy diapers.

We have begun to quantify the role diapers play in work readiness. Other factors play a role as well.

What about feminine hygiene products? There is anecdotal evidence that girls miss school while menstruating because they cannot afford tampons or pads. Some school districts now provide free hygiene products. It is reasonable to assume that if a daughter cannot afford tampons, neither can her mother. How many American women miss work because they don’t have period supplies?

Prospective employers may ask applicants if they have reliable transportation. It’s a reasonable question, but for many Americans an honest answer will not get them the job. In the 100 largest metropolitan areas, only one quarter of middle- or low-skilled jobs were accessible by public transit in 90 minutes or less, according to a 2011 Brookings Institution study. Driving is simply too expensive for many workers. Most Americans cannot afford a new car, according to an analysis by Bankrate.com. Even a reliable used one is out of reach for many people in poverty, and so they rely on rides from friends, relatives and neighbors – a precarious system that makes them late for some obligation sooner or later. Rather than see this as a sign of how much they are struggling, employers and even those of us in the helping professions all too often assume that some deficiency of character made them tardy.

According to the Census Bureau, 19.4 million Americans were living at less than half the Federal Poverty Level in 2015. That number includes 6.5 million children. To quantify how severe that poverty is: the current FPL is $12,060 for an individual and $24,600 for a family of four. These people are too poor to summon the resources necessary to hold down a job that pays a living wage. There are societal reforms that we must make to change that – too many and varied to be spelled out in this space.

But here is a place to start: We can stop blaming people in poverty for missteps that we think can be avoided, with the will to work. We can stop assuming that people living in poverty are lazy, unambitious, or what have you. We can look at the realities of real life in America and act accordingly.

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