Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Working Poor, Why?

Poverty and the reasons for it have been in the news media a lot recently.  I live in Seattle and most of the poverty news has been related to the progressive raising of the minimum wage to $15.00.  One of the recurring themes that I have heard for NOT raising the minimum wage to a livable level has been that those who have minimum wage jobs always have the choice to work their way out of them, go to school, move up the career ladder, in other words, pick themselves up by the bootstraps and get the hell out of poverty, another way of blaming the victim, because the underlying reasoning would be, “it is your fault that you are poor, do better.”  The trouble is, many of the people casting this argument have never been poor themselves.  There is plenty of research out there that suggests those who have money feel entitled to have the money that they have even if it is inherited rather than earned, in fact, even the illusion of “earning” money can cause an almost immediate entitled response.   If you want to learn more about this immediate elitist mentality, check out this TedTalk with Paul Piff,  https://www.ted.com/talks/paul_piff_does_money_make_you_mean.   

This post, however, is not going to be about the behavior of those who have monetary means, it is going to be about their attitudes which I attribute to a possible knowledge gap regarding some of the oft not mentioned reasons people are poor.

1.       Childhood Abuse:  Now I know that there are always stories about those who were abused in childhood, but managed to overcome these obstacle and do great things.  While it is encouraging that these success stories exist, this more often than not is not the case.  There is new research out that suggests abuse in childhood can actually alter the cellular structure of the brain.  Beginning at about the age of 10, the brain has less plasticity (the means to heal itself) so many of these changes are cemented on a cellular level.  Positron Emission Topography (PET scans) are one means researches have to study brain differences in action and “normal brain” reaction areas are being patterned for a number of different development and learning activities which means that we can actually see what used to be hidden and mysterious, the parts of the brain that function while doing things like learning.  The current research is focused primarily on the effects of physical abuse.  Long term effects of emotional abuse and neglect remain to be discovered.  A few characteristics of these children all grown up, include the following: Learning disabilities, emotional disturbances, and attention issues.

2.        Learning and Cognitive Challenges:  One thing that I have learned in my 20 years of working with special needs populations is that some people have cognitive and emotional abilities that will only take them so far in life.  Getting a job that is not route and routine will NEVER be something that they can do, why not?  Because they can’t, end of story.  Whether because of a learning disability, cognitive impairment, head injury, neurological event…even with the best therapy in the world, everyone has their limits. Not to mention the thousands of children that go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with behavior problems and wind up dropping out of school because they are really learning disabled, but no one has caught on to that and given them the services that they need to succeed in school. My limits are that I will never be an engineer, why? Because I can’t do math.  We all have our ability limitations, some just have more than others.

3.       Lack of Mental Health Care:  Mental health care is expensive and it is not easy to access specialized mental health practitioners even if one has good insurance and money in the bank. I have experienced this first hand.  Research proves over and over again that medications work best when paired with good therapy which is hard to find and often unaffordable to those that need it the most.  Many specialized mental health drugs are not covered by insurance and can sometimes run as much as $600.00 a month, which means that people who can’t afford it are prescribed an alternative and less expensive, also maybe less effective, medicine or they just don’t take their meds because they can’t afford to.  I realize that on every level in this country our health care system is broken.  If there is anything to learn from the recent suicide of Robin Williams, it is that people with mental health problems are sick and they need help regardless of their financial status.

4.       Family History of Drug and Alcohol Abuse:  Just because someone is poor, does not mean that they are a substance abuser (although I do have to hand it to some people for hanging on as well as they do without being a substance abuser, I am not so sure that I could do as well myself).  This is what growing up in a drug house can be like, you never know when the cops are going to come, you never know when the drug lab that your dad is operating in the garage will be busted or explode, you have probably already had police unexpectedly in your house in the middle of the night shining a bright light on you and your sister asleep in bed.  I got this information first hand when I interviewed someone raised in a “meth house.”  Growing up like this leaves you anxious, you often have sleep disturbances, what you really need is a mental health counselor and appropriate medications, but you may actually become a drug user yourself because things like pot and alcohol are cheaper and more readily available than adequate mental health services.

5.       Dumb Luck: And by luck I mean, “bad luck.”  People don’t get to choose the family that they are born into.  Some people, like me and most of the people that I know, were born into a family that valued education, goal setting, and ambition.  It goes without saying that in addition to passing these values on to me, my parents also had the financial means to support the adventures and experiences in my childhood that made me who I am today.  There are some parents out there who don’t try and do the best for their kids regardless of their economic resources.  While some poor parents do everything that they can to ensure that their offspring will have a better life, others do not.  They don’t value education or finding meaning and happiness in life and these attributes are not passed on to their children.  Although some people may choose to differ, it is really hard to overcome messages from your childhood as an adult, especially when your peer group may have similar issues and you do not have access to or knowledge of therapy and healing wounds from childhood.

6.       Incarceration: You don’t need to look very far to get the statistics, poor people are incarcerated more than those who are not poor.  A few months back I was listening to a program on NPR about this very thing, it included live recording of a judge talking to the defendant.  The defendant was back in court because he hadn’t paid a fine, the dialogue between judge and defendant when something like this:
Judge: “You need to pay this fine today or I am going to have to send you back to jail.”
Defendant: “I just started a new job and I get my first paycheck on Friday, I can pay you $50.00 then.”
Judge: “Friday is too late and $50.00 is not enough, why can’t you pay more? How old are you anyway?”
Defendant:  I can only pay $50.00 because this is my first paycheck and I have to pay rent, I am 27 years old.”
Judge: “You are 27 years old!  Look at yourself, what have you done with your life, you haven’t done anything, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
Defendant:  “Yes, your honor.”
Judge:  (more comments on the client’s age and how useless he was) “Well, I am going to have no choice but to send you to jail if you can’t pay that fine.”
Defendant: “Your honor if I go back to jail, I will lose my job and then I won’t be able to pay the fine.”
End of story:  Judge sentences defendant to jail time with the stipulation that the defendant must have a job by a certain time or face going back to jail and an increase in the amount of the fine once her is released.

While this is, of course, only one example, I think that is relevant to note that the judicial system and prisons are economic enterprises.  A recession means that they are no longer being allocated the same amount of public funds and it becomes “necessary” to obtain those funds from elsewhere, especially if you are the government and cutting back is not considered an option.  To be fair, those with money and privilege are also arrested and fined, the difference between the two populations is, of course, that one can afford private legal services, and can, in fact, afford to pay the system and get out of trouble without losing their job.  I am also certain that judges hear sob stories all of the time and, in their defense, may get weary of the same old routine.  This may mean that it is time to retire, take a long vacation, get a different career, invest in some self-care, I find it very hard to have pity for anyone who has resources available, does not take advantage of them, and takes their problems out on the people that they  are supposed to serve.  A judge is not in this category:

What amazes me is that even in light of the constant media poor bashing , victim blaming, lack of resources, and social circumstances is that any of the working poor ever make it to work.  They put in full time hours at jobs that I most certainly would not last a day at.  Not everyone can be a CEO, we need people in lower level service jobs, the economy does not run without them.  It is a national disgrace that they are required to do this work for:

For an insider’s view (and by “insider” I mean people like me) it gives you the inside scoop on what being in the working poor is like without becoming a member of the working poor yourself.  Barabara Ehrenreich is well educated, upper middle class writer who actually goes out a works in several positions that are considered “working poor,” including a house cleaning service and retail assistant.   

Unless you have walked a mile in someone else’s shoes, you never really know…

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