Safety Nets and the 'Deserving Poor'

We use the term "safety net" but that doesn't begin to get at how vital they were for me from age 9 to about 13 in my unsafe world. Without them, I might have ended up in foster care, on the streets or something worse in our crack-ridden neighborhood.
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No one deserves to be poor, just as no one deserves to be raped, get HIV, or be born blind. Poverty is a conditional state of being, and getting out is as much about luck as it is timing or hard work.

A newly published study, The Precarious State of Family Balance Sheets by the Pew Foundation reveals a striking level of financial fragility facing our nation. Despite the national recovery, many families have experienced minimal wage growth, have few savings and could not withstand a financial emergency.

That context is critical as Congress revisits "welfare reform" in 2015. Focusing most federal subsidies to aid the "deserving poor" (translation: low-wage workers) could leave behind whole generations of Americans with so much to potentially contribute. It isn't just about today. It's about what happens next year or more than a decade from now. It's about the future.

There is no such thing as the "undeserving poor." Many Americans who are out of work depend on monetary subsidies, food stamps, WIC, head-start and school lunch as short-term bridge towards a stable future. There are many graduates of these programs that not only never went back, but are now giving back.

I am one of them.

I wasn't born poor. I had educated, married, middle-class parents. Yet, when I was 9 years old, we went on welfare and food stamps. It lasted four years. Unfortunately, my story is more typical than many assume.

The Pew study shows 70 percent of U.S. households face financial strains on income, expenditures or wealth. Around 40 percent of U.S. adults experience poverty at some point in their lives, according to another study from Washington University in St. Louis. And U.S. Census figures show children remain our poorest citizens -- about a quarter under the age of 18 currently live in poverty.

Living on welfare is not easy and it isn't fun.

Getting decent food, for example, can be a world-class struggle. My family lived in a so-called food desert. We didn't have a car and didn't live near a good grocery store. We had to walk many blocks to the crappy one or overspend at the corner store. Public transportation was expensive. In our neighborhood food was extremely expensive and individual ingredients were more expensive than processed and packaged food. And, the quality of everything was very inferior. Sometimes the frozen meat thawed green.

I tried to tell myself from the moment I moved into the ghetto, I was leaving the first chance I got. But in those years, I had to live every day with the crushing reality that maybe this would always be my life. Every day, I had to watch women sell themselves for drugs, walk by the middle-school drug dealers on the street corner, and end my days in a home rocked by domestic violence and alcohol addiction. Even with all my so-called advantages, I often think about what would have happened to me without the food stamps between 1983 and 1987. We use the term "safety net" but that doesn't begin to get at how vital they were for me from age 9 to about 13 in my unsafe world. Without them, I might have ended up in foster care, on the streets or something worse in our crack-ridden neighborhood.

In many ways, my family was the definition of the so-called "undeserving poor." My parents fell on hard times, both because of bad luck and because of bad choices. My dad was certainly guilty of drinking the last of our money away after he retired from the military, and my mother refused to work because she believed that staying at home was good for us kids. My parents fought over our welfare checks and it was violent and frightening. Without cash, food stamps were often our only means of purchasing food. I was obsessed with keeping those stamps securely fastened to the book because storeowners wouldn't take loose bills, since it was considered a sign of fraud. I became afraid the bills would become worthless and we'd go hungry at the end of the month. Sometimes we did.

But for the most part, poverty subsidies delivered on their intention: they helped a family in crisis because my dad needed a job. Eventually he found one working in state government in Harrisburg, Pa. It took four years and numerous rejections claiming he was "overqualified" after spending 12 year in the Navy as an officer. By 1987, we were working class, not welfare class--and long before welfare-to-work was mandated.

That was the 1980s, and now we are in an economy that is much worse for people who have fallen on hard times. Ask any unemployed older man in the current economy how often he is told he is overqualified and turned away from a job. We live in a 21st Century economy that seems to demand greater shares of the labor market be automated, downsized, outsourced, temporary and low wage. It is an economy that is less and less about adding stable jobs and providing livelihood for workers of all education levels. It is an economy where more and more people work full-time but need safety nets to provide their families with adequate food and housing.

Today, food, energy and housing costs are growing, and yet according to the Urban Institute cash subsidies average about a paltry $400 a month for a parent and two kids around the country. And yet we look at the jobless poor and find they are greedily on the dole?

In the richest economy in the world, we waste needless energy debating who deserves support. I ask myself why people are so desperate to make moral judgments about someone's bad choice or circumstance and then use those judgments as an excuse to refuse to help. We all make bad choices, and sometimes it is just pure luck that the consequences of that choice aren't worse than the other guy's. Deliberately leaving people behind for a supposed moral failing, whether imagined or real, is a bad choice.

We need an economy that truly supports people through jobs and livelihood and the opportunity to excel. Helping people in crisis should be a national no-brainer while we focus on the harder task of finding ways to invest in them beyond basic subsidies. Real people are poor and don't have jobs that want them. Our concern should be less about how they came upon misfortune and instead how we can enrich our country by treating them as worthy of investment. If we do not, we may all find ourselves poor in the end.

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