As Paul Ryan works tirelessly to eliminate a nearly nonexistent social safety net, it seems education is in order about poverty and people who live it.
Having grown up in and around the Detroit area, I personally felt the pain of chronic poverty both at home and in school, and had no shortage of friends and neighbors who were in the same predicament. Despite our families working around the clock to put food on the table, there was no shortage of TV commentators and politicians deriding us for our lifestyles, and assuming that our circumstances were of our own choosing due to a perceived lack of ability or interest to move up the class ladder.
Even today, in the richest country in the world, poverty continues to ensnare nearly the entire population, with some 93 percent of U.S. counties never emerging from the Great Recession of the late 2000s, according to the Wall Street Journal. This is unlikely to change until our elected officials learn a few things about impoverished people and their communities. Here are five things Paul Ryan, Donald Trump, and other elected officials need to know about poverty if we’re ever to escape it:
1. Sometimes, there’s nothing left to cut
It’s easy to assume that since a poor person has a cellphone or jeans that aren’t 20 years out of style that they’re spending money they don’t have. The chorus from conservatives is always along the lines of, “Why don’t you spend less on that cellphone and save more for what you need?”
These arguments always ignore the fact that nearly every dollar of a poor person’s monthly budget goes almost entirely to basic living expenses — the cellphone we use is rented, not owned, and the $35 a month it costs for the most basic plan is our only means of contacting someone or being contacted. Our jeans are likely hand-me-downs from an older sibling, or a lucky find from a thrift store rack.
In February of last year, TIME Money conducted a study of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34, and found that at the end of the month, most had very little disposable income on hand. If the average household is pulling in $54,622 a year after taxes ($4,552 a month), only $423 is left after factoring in the average cost of housing ($1,450 per month), transportation ($742 per month) healthcare ($222 per month), food ($553 per month), pensions and Social Security contributions ($445 per month), entertainment ($202 per month), education ($91 per month) and other miscellaneous expenses ($424 per month). For most millennials, student loan payments far exceed that $91 per month. CollegeinColorado.org estimated that the average monthly payment on a $25,000 student loan was $280 per month.
2. Using food stamps/the food bank is a terrible experience
Nobody wants to be seen in the grocery store checkout line swiping an EBT (electronic benefits transfer, also known as food stamps) card at the register. And waiting in line at the local food bank for an armload of canned goods and boxed spaghetti noodles is a shameful ordeal. Even applying for an EBT card involves sitting in front of a case worker and justifying your poverty to them in order to get a little extra help paying for groceries each month. I’ve personally sat in on meetings with my mother and a food stamp office worker because she knew that if the case worker saw me there, she would get extra sympathy points.
Paul Ryan and Republican elected officials trying their hardest to cut food stamp benefits need to understand that most people who depend on food stamps are still employed. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that roughly 80 percent of people who used SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) were employed, at least part-time, during the course of a year. 70 percent of SNAP beneficiaries are in families with children. This means SNAP recipients are, by and large, working people with children to feed.
3. Being temporarily poor doesn’t mean you understand poverty
For some, poverty is a temporary state of affairs that can be alleviated when a relative passes and leaves you their car in their will, or when your threadbare winter coat is replaced by a kind relative who no longer needs theirs. But for the chronically poor, which, as Virginia Tech associate professor Bradford Mills describes as consistently living below the poverty line, many people don’t get a helping hand from friends or relatives, as the “transiently poor” do. According to Mills, 9.3 percent of Americans are in chronic poverty — nearly 30 million people nationwide. The chronically poor are unable to move out of their circumstances without a more compassionate social safety net.
4. Poor people don’t enjoy eating fast food
There’s never any shortage of judgmental people who slander the lives of poor people who eat McDonalds. And when seeing an obese person in poverty leaving a McDonalds, it’s easy to wonder why that person doesn’t take better care of themselves and eat more nutritious food. But speaking from experience, it’s much more affordable to eat a $1.09 double cheeseburger from the Dollar Menu than it is to buy fresh meat and produce and cook a wholesome meal.
In a 2013 article for The Huffington Post, journalist Carey Polis described how a lack of disposable income was a major contributor to children eating fast food, finding that for many impoverished families, it was a last resort rather than a want. On average, cooking healthy meals costs about $550 more per year than eating fast food. And as I described in the first section, that’s almost always $550 more than impoverished families can afford.
5. Nobody appreciates your hard work
Even when you work more than 40 hours per week, the work done by impoverished people is usually ignored by the vast majority of America. The New York Times reported in 2014 that most of the job growth that’s happened since the Recession “ended” happened in industries where the pay is traditionally low, like fast food and retail.
As Pew Research noted in September of 2016, almost 103 million people work in the service industry, making up more than 70 percent of all confirm labor in the United States. And because service industry jobs almost always pay minimum wage or less (tipped workers still earn $2.13 an hour), that means there are over 100 million working people in the United States who are just one paycheck away from eviction or repossession. Saving for retirement is entirely out of the question for workers like these, and you can just as easily lose a job as you would a pair of sunglasses if the manager finds someone willing to work a few more hours for a little less pay.
The next time Paul Ryan or any other person who judges poor people as lazy, worthless, or even just poor as a victim of their own choices, show them this article. Maybe they’ll learn a few new things and have a little more compassion to compliment their policy-making.
Jamie Green is a contributor for the Resistance Report covering the Trump administration, and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.