Born Poor

Anyone with ears or eyes has seen people discussing government spending. The economist, teachers, politicians and the mystical middle class all weighing in on the pros and cons and statistics and surveys about how much we are or aren’t spending and why it’s good or bad.

America is struggling to bring down our deficit. Most of us know that debt isn’t good. And ours is currently $14,172,957,589,856.62. Whoa. So we have to make changes in government spending. But how?

Or really the first question is: What do we cut?

While it’s fun to quibble from our political stands making assumptions about the other side’s intentions and how big and little and cute government can be, I think that the best way to decide what to cut is to answer the following:

If you were a baby born to the poorest of the poor, what would you want? What would you need in order to survive? To thrive?

And that’s what the government should provide. A minimum. A safety net for the child born into poverty. It doesn’t matter how his parents got there. He didn’t pick his parents or his hometown. He just got pushed into the world he’s in.

(Yes, I am a huge fan of the political philosopher, John Rawls, and yes, this is pulled from A Theory of Justice. John Rawls as defined by the dictionary: (1921—2002 ), U.S. philosopher. His books A Theory of Justice (1971) and Political Liberalism (1993) consider the basic institutions of a just society as those chosen by rational people under conditions that ensure impartiality.)

Well, let’s be rational! Yay! Let’s pretend we are born into a very poor family. Regardless of how our unemployed, unskilled, unwell, or slacker parents got here, we are born. Or for the parents out there, imagine your child was born to these parents. What would you want for Little {insert child’s name here} to have?

I would want shelter. A baby doesn’t need five rooms. But he needs a roof. And some heat in the winter. Some indoor plumbing.

I would want access to health care for my children. Little E and N need shots and will occasionally get sick. They will also need someone to assess them developmentally since delays that are treated earlier have much more successful outcomes. So a doctor who is familiar with children and their development would probably be the most efficient at it.

The baby needs food. My mom may not breast feed so there needs to be another option. As she grows older, she will need assess to regular semi-healthy food whether my family can afford it or not.

Children need education. Little {insert your child’s name} can’t better himself if he can’t read and write. He don’t need to attend a fancy school, but he need some option that isn’t money-based since he was born into the poorest of the poor.

And maybe that’s it. We stop at food, shelter, basic health care and education. We have a minimum that no person can fall beneath. And that is not based on the whims of charities and individuals.

I, personally, would go farther in my minimum because I believe that children need love and nurturing. And parents who are working three jobs to afford the little one room apartment or who are addicts or who are in abusive relationships need more support to be able to be available to their children. So I would add a minimum wage and some basic health care access for adults including access to mental health.

And this is if the child develops within normal range. What if they are autistic, bound to a wheelchair due to a muscular dystrophy or have a speech impediment? How does that child get a wheelchair? Get therapy? Get appropriate education for the family? Don’t we want this child to have enough support to be a productive member of our society who doesn’t need government intervention?

It’s easy to sit in our warm homes that we worked hard to buy and maintain and glance at our clean and well-fed children who run around happily singing their ABCs and think: The government spends too much.

But how do we, as individuals and families, get to the point where the government didn’t need to help us? And how can we get the child, who is not lucky enough to be born into our warm home and family, to that point?

Before we answer, we must understand what poor means in America. We must listen to stories of what it looks like to grow up in Appalachia or in the projects of our local city. We must learn the realities before we can picture ourselves and our children faced with the obstacles. Perhaps, begin with: There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in The Other America by Alex Kotlowitz.

And then let’s discuss where our government should spend our money.

Alex Iwashyna

Alex Iwashyna went from a B.A. in philosophy to an M.D. to a SAHM, poet and writer by 30. She spends most of her writing time on, a humor blog (except when it's serious) about her husband fighting zombies, awkward attempts at friendship, and dancing like everyone is watching. She also has a soft spot for culture, politics, and rude Southern people who offend her Yankee sensibilities. She parents 2 elementary-aged children, 1 foster baby, 3 cats, and 1 puppy, who are all Southern but not rude. Yet.

59 thoughts to “Born Poor”

  1. BRAVO! well said, my friend. very well said. and I think that we as citizens need to give more. maybe not even more mone if that’s not possible (because many of us are strapped). but other things help too. donate food and clothing to shelters and foster homes. donate time. help at food banks or build houses with Habitat. there is so much we can do that takes so little time and money but makes a HUGE difference.

  2. I like this, Alex, and I would love to see a post like this here every Thursday. We’re all on this planet together, and we need to talk and discuss about everyone more. Not finger wag or preach, but DISCUSS.

    You lay it out so nicely, and now we can go out into the world with this.

    Thank you, Alex.

  3. I don’t think it’s so much that the government is spending too much but that too many government officials are EMBEZZLING. I don’t mind paying to help others but I do mind lining some flunkies pockets.

    But then, I’m from Chicago so perhaps this is not as prevalent in other parts of the country. But I’m pissed about it here.

  4. Hi Martha’s friend. I signed up for your blog because I like the way you think and write. Very good points in BORN POOR. I hope you save your writing and make a book of essays.
    Marge Wood

  5. Amen. I find it utterly ironic that “our children” are invoked as a reason why we need to cut spending to these most basic and vital services. No, I don’t want to leave our children with insurmountable debt, but neither do I want to leave them a nation so divided by rich and poor that it no longer resembles America.

  6. I remember when my wife and I were campaigning for Dennis Kucinich a few years ago, one of our favorite slogans was “Vote your hopes, not your fears!”
    When I look at the budget:

    I can’t help but believe that our defense spending could be cut dramatically and still leave us safe and protected. Why spend so much time and money protecting us from an “enemy” when we already treat parts of our population like they were some “other” that aren’t as good as we are or worth our love and care.

    I’m not saying things don’t need to change. I think paying for current medical care is not feasible into the future without dramatic changes in the pay structure/reimbursement for medical care. A system where I get payed more to pull wax out of an ear than to talk to a family about healthy diet/obesity is destined to fail us as a country and a profession.
    (loosely related: (language warning))

  7. 80% of my school district falls below the poverty line. Some parents (who could choose to be at a PTO meeting at 8am), were appalled by the new school breakfast program. All kids can get a free lunch. And if they choose, they can grab it on their way to class. Some thought it would disrupt classes. More then hungry tummies? Please.

  8. If a child is born into a country in which the government provides a home and food and education and health care and a wage, then that government is Communist. Or Progressive Socialist at best.

    Because some much is provided, that child cannot challenge or criticize the government.

    This is NOT an opinion. This is History. The Utopian theory has been put into practice in Russia, Germany, England to name a few.

    In the world you describe, N would not exist because you would not be allowed to have a second child.

    I think it would be better to be in a system where the economy is so robust that those truly in need can be helped. America GIVES AWAY more food that most countries produce. It’s that kind of system that we’re walking away from. The American way of life has been going away for a long time. Now a dynamic young leader promises to transform America. Yep just like Germany in 1928. He didn’t succeed until things got real bad economically. Adolf Hitler is who I’m talking about.

    1. Not trying to be offensive. I’m not trying to say that Obama is going to burn Jews. I’m saying that both men are Charismatic and Great Orators with the Bread and Money Progressive Socialist agenda. Remember that the Nazis were the National SOCIALIST Party. I remember my mother (who was a committed Nazi) extolling the virtues of Hitler the same way Obama is praised today. Worshiping the man without criticism or questioning his policies and motivations. Way back when he first started running our forum discussed the probability of Obama being an unstoppable candidate because anyone criticizing him would be automatically labeled offensive or racist.

      Your comments make my point.

    2. I don’t think Alex is suggesting that the government provide each family with a house and other goods, but rather that it provide a framework of support that allows each family to acquire necessities and hopefully pull itself up out of poverty. I don’t think there is anything communist about saying children in our country have the right to food, shelter, health care or education.

      The gap between rich and poor is truly depressing, and I too wish the government could figure out a way to get the right services to the right people while lowering overall spending.

      1. The solution is to back government out of our lives. The federal government was never intended to be so far into your pocket. State and local government govern better. Remember “Taxation with Representation”? The poor? I live in a town where having a job is unusual. Our first landlord couldn’t understand that we couldn’t pay rent on the day the welfare checks went out. We’re paid on Friday, thank you, come back then. Kennedy said give a man a fish and you feed him for one day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. The redistribution of wealth, the Social Justice that Obama and the Progressives talk about, they’re trying to buy us all fish.

        Google the price of gas and see if the Rich Oil Companies get all that money. You know who does? The Government through taxes on gas. Of course Obama wants five dollar gas. It’s the only way Obamacare will be paid for.

        PS: I went to college. I voted for Jimmy Carter. My English Comp professor was a Marxist. The Communist Manifesto was required reading. I’m not a right wing radical. I believe in most of the same stuff I did when I was 20. I tell folks (and my kids) that the whole scale has shifted so far to the Left that I look like a fascist.

        1. You’re saying the same thing many of my Republican friends say. But…

          How is this going to help stop the poverty in our nation? How will this prevent children from starving to death? How will this strengthen our nation?

          Or do you propose a Darwinian plan? Survival of the richest.

          1. There is nothing Darwinian about neighbors helping neighbors. There is something Orwellian about the government providing life’s necessities. Jesus said there will always be the Poor. Poverty in America will never end because it’s good business. Welfare is generational. If you won the lottery and were guaranteed an income for life, would you work? Good for politics too because all you have to do is guarantee the Right to Government Support and the poor will vote for you. Clinton had Welfare almost fixed. Then Bush screwed it up.

            1. Jesus also said to “be no part of this world, just as I am no part of this world” but that doesn’t stop some Christians from campaigning for laws based on their religious beliefs.

              I truly believe that we should help our neighbor. The thing is, though, if we all helped our neighbors to the extent that they would have the bare basics to survive, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

              And if you’re referring to welfare as winning the lottery, you’ve obviously never had to try to live on it. Do you know what a family of four receives on welfare? Up to $900 per month.

              Granted, a family of four also receives up to $500/month in food stamps, but they can’t be used for rent, gas, heat, electricity, child care while looking for a job, clothes, or doctor’s bills.

              And having a family of eight does not double your money. The average welfare recipient receives about $60 per additional child. As I’m sure you can agree, a child costs more than $60 a month.

              If this is winning the lottery, then I’m going to stop buying tickets. 🙂

              1. Then why has Obama Never referred to himself as a Democrat but rather “A Progressive”? Why does Hillary Clinton describe herself as “A Progressive”? Why did Van Jones stop calling himself a Communist and now refers to himself as “A Progressive”? Seems the Progressive Party is making a big comeback.

          1. I have to agree w/ Walt. If we continue to hand out goodies, those who remain working will eventually give up when they keep getting their income taken from them. Then who will feed the hungry?

            1. I don’t propose giving everyone cake and two bedroom homes. I think that everyone deserve food, shelter and health care. I would NEVER give up my income for the food, shelter and health care available to the poor. This is to set up a bare minimum — there are no maximums in this scenario.

              1. The beauty of the United States is that we have the RIGHT to pursue these things, but they are not handed out to us. With each generation, my family grew from potato picking immigrants to college educated and middle class. We had the drive and incentive (ie. the thought of a better house, nice cars and food in our bellies) to make better of ourselves. My husband and I did not have children until we were in our late 30’s….and could afford them! I’m ok with giving a helping hand, but to make it an ongoing lifestyle cannot be maintained. The town nearest me just built (with our tax $$) very nice housing ONLY for migrant workers… one else is to be considered. The poor people in this town aren’t given free apartments. How fair is that?

                1. I think that we have more in common that we would’ve though. “I’m ok with giving a helping hand, but to make it an ongoing lifestyle cannot be maintained.” Because I think that is the idea of a minimum. To end the cycle of poverty by providing what’s necessary for a child born into poverty to better herself with hard work and hard won opportunities.

                  PS. I welcome your opinions and experiences whether we have something in common or not. I just think that finding common ground is something which helps us to do less us vs. them in discussions.

                  1. “To end the cycle of poverty by providing what’s necessary for a child born into poverty to better herself with hard work and hard won opportunities.”

                    I agree completely.

  9. i thought for awhile how i wanted to respond to this. here’s what i’ve got:

    i agree with most of the points that you made, about making sure necessities are covered first and foremost for our children. but more than just figuring out what to spend the budget on, i think the government needs to work out how to spend it. i’m sure they can be much more efficient in funding programs, with less going to waste or in the pockets of those running the programs and more going to the people who are supposed to be helped.

    i and my family are by no means the poorest of the poor, we are very lucky in many ways, but still we do depend on government assistance. it’s sad and it’s frustrating, because as the economy got worse, the assistance programs became so overloaded that there was less help to be had all around. income limits were changed in such a way that those that desperately needed helped would still be able to get it, but it also meant that the raise my husband got to cover cost of living increases meant less help for us. the most upsetting part of the whole scenario is that the raise he got is less than the amount of assistance they took away, so now we are more behind than we were last year.

    i don’t say this to complain or in hopes of pity. as i am well aware, what little we have is enough to get by. and though sometimes it takes hours to fill out forms and to wait on hold to talk to case workers, i am able to get what i need to make sure my kids are taken care of. i only wanted to share in hopes of highlighting a broken system. if changes in government spending can help fix it, i would be so supportive, but honestly i think it will take a change in attitude and people’s perspective to overcome this country’s gap between rich and poor.

    1. Ok. I’m so confused,anne. Your reply to alex’s post speaks of your family receiving government assistance, and then you link to your blog which is a lengthy complaint about the flowers and chocolate you received recently…from your husband who didn’t get a big enough raise this year. Maybe its time to ask for more accountability from government leaders AND those who receive said assistance???

      1. yes, i know it’s crazy that my husband would save up to buy me a gift for valentines day. and that i would selfishly accept it. i realize we could have just saved the money and put it toward savings, but sometimes it’s nice to give and get a give for the ones you love on the cheesiest holiday of the year.

  10. 1. I wish I had a doctor to pull the wax out of my ears. I can hardly hear.

    2. Here in La La land, we could be the poster child for Deficit. One of my fave local NPR shows did a segment on how to balance the California budget. They tried two approaches. In the first, they hypothetically cut a bunch of services. Which basically put a penny in an empty bucket. In the second approach, they simply increased the tax for gas, alcohol, and cigarettes, making all three crazy expensive. But people will, hypothetically, buy them anyway. And when they do, California will find itself in a SURPLUS. Without cutting a single service. Too bad that will never become a reality.

  11. Very well done.

    I am constantly appalled that people think it’s o.k. – mandatory, even – to take from children. From those who are lacking. There is something lacking in the heart of those who refuse to help others in need.

  12. I just don’t think it’s that simple. I live amoung the poorest of the poor in our area and we are poor. Our family qualifies for free lunch, as an indicator of our true level. But what I see daily is parents getting housing food and health coverage and yet drive nicer cars than I do, better houses, name brand clothes and better electronic toys. Just because its what we should do to care for the kids doesn’t mean they recieve the benefit of it. I think spending it is great if it benfits kids. But as our system exists it allows for parents to benefit from having additional kids who are not getting that love and nuture regardless of whether parents work 3 jobs or none. Here in our neghborhood they are forced outside 12 hours a day so parents can use and sell drugs.

    1. Dr. Donna Beegle has done amazing work in generational poverty. In her book, she explains that when people in poverty buy the fancy car, the new TV, they are doing so to fulfill the human instinct to fit into your village. *sigh* She explains it so much better than I do.

      Dr. Beegle claims that people in poverty have their own values and culture that are as different from those of the middle class as two countries.

      So, what happens, is we judge. We look at their actions from our perspectives and life experiences and judge them.

      1. Ruby Payne has an excellent book too called Understanding Poverty. It is aimed for teachers and administrators but basically says the same thing. People who are truly born into poverty find more personal value in fancy cars, clothes, and electronics b/c it is what they think makes them valuable. All they’ve ever had to protect is themselves so they are more selfish about what they spend their money on.

    2. I do think our system needs to change. This post is to get us to think about what needs to be in place for people to have just enough to focus on working hard and working smart. So many people just want to cut everything instead of rethinking the implementation of the program. You make good points about loop holes in our current system and the complexity of drug addiction or other parental issues. I wonder if our government focused more on infrastructure than welfare checks (access to decent doctors, decent schools, etc), it would create more change?

  13. Unfortunately this makes too much sense and employs too much logic for the government to ever enact. Snarky comments aside, I agree entirely.

    I disagree with Walt that what you are describing is a utopian society. There are still “poor” people in your description, so it is far from utopian. It just changes the floor of what we’re willing and able to provide to our citizens. Perhaps the savings can come from changing what we’re willing and able to provide for other country’s citizens (especially when we let genocide slide but jump in if oil is at risk).

    I think what you are referring to – and you reference John Rawls – is the “Veil of Ignorance” which basically says “Imagine before you are born you don’t know anything about who you’ll be, your abilities or your position. Now design a tax system or federal budget or government.”

    I may not be smart enough to solve the problem, but I know these questions and conversations need to be had – that’s how progress is made. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for explaining the differences in Utopian communities and this scenario — I was having trouble finding the right words and then you wrote them!
      And I’ve been thinking more about it and changing the floor might not even cost more money! It might entail redirecting money into infrastructure (think of all those jobs that could be created by building things!) where education and health care and support could be provided. Hmmm…

  14. I’ve been thinking about this post all day. All. Day. And I wanted to comment. But I wasn’t sure how.

    Should I comment from the purely clinical stand point of the books I’ve read, the lectures I’ve heard and the people I know?

    Should I rattle off data that is as appalling as it is enlightening? Should I refute the myths? Should I add that the “idea” that we are all born equal in this country is a horrible lie? That children born into poverty are more likely to continue in poverty, to not receive an education, to end up in prison, in the foster care system, on the streets.

    I don’t want to hijack your post, but this is a subject that is very close to me. When I was a little girl, before my dad started working at the mill, we lived in poverty.

    To me, poverty was going to the dentist five times in 18 years – all after turning 13. Poverty was my parents having to try every folk cure they could think of when one of us got sick because going to the doctor was out of the question. Poverty was putting cardboard in the hole in the bottom of my shoe and coloring it black with a pen. Poverty was learning to sit so that the holes in my pants and shoes didn’t show. Poverty was knowing not to tell my parents about said holes because I knew they’d somehow find what I needed, but I hated the look of worry on their faces.

    Poverty was living in a motel for six months until my dad had enough money for rent. Poverty was my dad working 12 hours a day, seven days a week to provide for his family and still not making enough. Poverty was eating raccoon, eating possum, eating whatever was on our plate. It was not asking for a toy. Not asking to sign up for a school play or a sport because we couldn’t pay the fees.

    I don’t talk about this that often because I hate the looks on people’s faces. My parents did what they had to do. They worked their asses off and then? When they were done with work? They kept working. We were on food stamps. At one point we were on welfare. We received government cheese. And we were judged. By every store clerk who took the stamps and every person in line who saw us use them. I heard the comments. I saw their rolling eyes.

    My dad kept working. Until, finally, he found a job that paid him enough to no longer worry about what we were going to eat and how he was going to pay for a doctor’s visit. Without government aid, I don’t know what we would have done.

    They were finally okay. At least until my sister got sick and the insurance cap was reached and they lost everything paying for life-saving medical bills.

    But that’s another rant entirely.

  15. Today was the perfect day for this! I needed this, thank you! It is getting me fired up to attack our local school system. Hamilton County is talking about closing 3 schools in the district. It is the 4 in the state that ranks 47 in the country. I guess who needs education anyway, we live in the South right?
    My greatest fear is that my child(ren) wont grow up in a counrty where John Q. Public receives a free good education.

    Ok I’m done ranting, thanks Alex

  16. This is a great post, Alex, and I think it’s done just what you intended: it got people to think and discuss. I don’t think it’s about handouts for the needy or creating a socialist community. I really wish more politicians (and activists) would discuss the concept of a living wage. I think it is a crime that anyone who works a full time job (or its equivalent) in this country cannot make enough to support a family. When you look at the cycle of poverty, you frequently find families working multiple jobs and still not able to make ends meet. These are not families wasting money but, rather, scraping by on the barest of resources. Meanwhile, we have individuals and corporations who live off of obscene salaries and profits. To me, the true integrity of a company is found in the pay discrepancy between their CEO and their lowest paid or average paid worker. Wal-Mart’s CEO is paid as much in one hour as their lowest paid worker makes in one year. By contrast, Costco’s CEO makes only about 10 times the amount of their average employee salary. They pay their workers a living wage (starting at around $16 an hour), provide health care for their employees, and still manage to achieve profitability. The government’s role in this is that companies will not all voluntarily live these ethics so the government needs to step in and advocate (mandate) for living wages for American workers and caps on astronomical executive salaries. A profitable company should not be allowed to pay poverty wages to its workers. There’s my two cents.

  17. I do wish that every child born is born to a warm house with a roof over their heads, food on their plates, and an education that will help them make choices in the future. It is sad to see that some of the first programs cut are schools and head start programs. In my area school are being closed and head start programs are being cut. Libraries are getting closer and closer every day to being closed. It is sad and I have to believe there is a better way of doing things. I am not smart in politics, but I do know that I will keep praying and knowing that God has a plan for us. We are just going though some dark times at the moment.

  18. Ok so here is my take on things. Our political SYSTEM is broken. Not just in the US – across the world. There was a time when the system actually benefitted the majority of the people, but we have long passed that time. As we have moved to a world run on FIAT money, where banks are creating money out of thin air, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has grown drastically. And will continue to grow. Until we decide that our ego-driven model for society is costing us LIVES and the destruction of our planet.

    We have the technology and ability to provide for the needs of our world. But it will require a DRASTIC redesign of our culture. It’s not about right or wrong. Good or bad. It is about putting cooperation over competition. Taking care of the innocent children in our world is a good place to start.

  19. This is such a good piece. And a wonderful way to view what needs to be done. I think a lot of people balk at “charity” because the parents or caregivers have their priorities skewed. But it’s not about them. It’s about the child.

  20. Very appropriately said. Most that have enough and more than enough in this Country don’t have the foggiest-idea what being poor is like. We as a nation of people must realize that we can and must be sympathetic to those less fortunate. Whenever the haves give something to the have-nots, everyone has something.

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