Another Perspective on Poverty

This is a story that hits much closer to home for me, as it happened to a friend of mine. But her story has done as much as anything to affect how I understand poverty, how I understand the role of government assistance, of social safety nets.

And it has done as much as anything to teach me the dangers of making assumptions.

I have a friend who experienced difficult times during the recession of the Bush Years. She and her husband are both capable and hard workers, college educated. He worked in a skilled labor field and she did general office work. They did fine for themselves.

Then he was involved in an accident and was severely injured. He’s disabled for the rest of his life. As a result, he could no longer work in his chosen field. He lost his job, lost his health insurance. And we all know COBRA is prohibitively expensive.

Multiple surgeries, pain medications, rehabilitation—the bills started piling up. And because he could no longer work in his chosen profession, he was staring down the barrel of job retraining. He was home-bound during his recovery so he started using online job training resources.

They buckled down, cut expenses, dipped into their savings, dipped into their emergency fund. He got unemployment and some disability from social security. He could no longer drive, so they sold one of their two cars and got some extra cash. They survived.

A couple months later, her company downsized and eliminated her position. She lost her health insurance. And they definitely couldn’t afford COBRA.

Still, they did their best. She applied for every single job she could, but it was the middle of the recession so there weren’t very many jobs to be had. He doubled down on his job retraining, despite still being in recovery. She got on unemployment, too. Their friends helped out when they could, buying them dinner every now and then, chipping in to cover portions of occasional utility bills.

But it wasn’t enough. Without health insurance, with his ongoing medical expenses, they needed help. They applied to the state for food assistance and qualified. Just something temporary until she could get back to work, until he was healthy enough to embark on a new career path.

One day, on her way to a job interview, a man ran a stop sign and t-boned her car.

So their only remaining car was totaled and they couldn’t afford to replace it. And the town they lived in had no functioning public transportation to speak of.

Now they were both effectively stranded at home. With no car, she had no way to get to job interviews, no way to even run errands.

So several of their friends got together and came up with a schedule of when each of them could spare their cars, so she would have a car to borrow when she needed one. Knowing when each of her friends’ cars were available, she could schedule job interviews and run her errands without worry.

One day, she’s at the grocery store and she pays for her groceries with her EBT card. She rolls her cart out to the parking lot and starts to unload. The car she borrowed that day was a Lexus sedan—a very nice and expensive car.

The person who had been in line behind her at the store saw her pay with her EBT card, so knew she was on assistance. They then saw her loading her groceries into a very nice, expensive car—which they assumed was hers. They decided to call her out:

“You’re on welfare but you can afford a nice car like that?”
“Scamming honest tax payers.”
“How dare you?”
“You should be ashamed!”

It broke her. She started sobbing and couldn’t stop. She collapsed onto the pavement and wept. Of course the coward who yelled at her, who precipitated her break down, fled at the sight of her on the ground, sobbing in the middle of a grocery store parking lot.

It took them a couple of years, but my friends managed to pull themselves out of trouble. She found a new job, he completed a new degree in IT and works from home. They were on food assistance for less than one year.

Even hard working, capable, responsible people sometimes fall on hard times and need help to get back on their feet. There’s no shame in this.

My friends had the benefit, too, of savings and an emergency fund they had managed to set aside over the years. Imagine how much worse this would have been for them without those. Imagine how much worse if they hadn’t had the second car to sell. Imagine how much worse if they hadn’t had friends’ cars to borrow. Imagine if their friends had all been poor, and unable to pitch in or help.

I wonder, too, how the husband would have managed his job retraining if he hadn’t had a home computer and internet access while he was home-bound during his recovery.

If they had been poor, rather than lower middle class, when this ordeal started, I don’t see how they would have made it through at all.

I understand why the person who yelled at my friend reacted as they did: it’s not unreasonable to assume that someone owns the car they’re loading their groceries into. And there is a bit of cognitive dissonance when you see someone who owns a luxury sedan using food assistance.

But that’s the whole point: if it doesn’t makes sense, it means you’re missing pieces of the story. Stop making assumptions to fill in the blanks. And if you’re going to make assumptions, make better ones: give people the benefit of the doubt.

Stop assuming the worst of everyone. Why are so many so eager to believe so badly of their fellows?

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