Poverty is a complex issue. Because of this, there are many misunderstandings surrounding poverty and what causes someone to live in poverty. Let’s look at the top 10 myths, and what happened to the North Carolinians who have lived in poverty. Thanks to WAGES, YVEDDI, and I-CARE for sharing stories about some of their clients. The client names have been changed to protect their privacy.
#1: People in poverty are lazy and unmotivated. They want to live off the government so they only have themselves to blame.
On September 27, 2019, “Rebecca” walked into my office looking for help. She was experiencing homelessness, unemployment, had medical conditions, and limited family support. I sat down with her and started talking through an action plan. Rebecca said she was told to file for disability due to her medical condition by several people, but she did not want to depend on a Social Security check to provide for her and her son that could be terminated at any time. She was determined not to let her medical condition stop her from succeeding. We started by paying for two months of rent ($1,000) to help her avoid eviction and then began training. She completed an online customer service certification program and re-enrolled into a four-year Business Administration program at Wayne Community College. We gave her a referral to Verizon Wireless, helped her write her resume and prepare for the interview. Rebecca had been hospitalized and lost a lot of weight due to her medical condition, so we worked together to find her interview ready clothes that helped her feel confident. On October 9, 2019, Rebecca let us know she had an interview with Verizon Wireless for a Business Account Manager position. Two days later, Rebecca was offered the position, which came with a starting salary of $38,400. Rebecca said she will never forget the support she received from WAGES, but especially from her Case Manager who was more of a family support than a resource. - Story provided by WAGES, Inc.
Living in poverty is incredibly stressful. No one wants to be poor, and they don’t choose to be poor. Rebecca went from living well to living in poverty within a matter of months. It would have been easier for Rebecca to file for disability and live off the government than to become self-sufficient, but she was determined to live independently. Thanks to WAGES, she accomplished her goals with just a few weeks of support from her case manager. Her story is not unusual. Life happens, and sometimes that life includes divorce, loss of a career, losing your home, and physical or mental illness, and hospitalization. People living in poverty do what they can to be self-sufficient, but they often need just a little help and support to get back on their feet.
Living off the government is not a choice, but a requirement to survive for many people in poverty. If they could, they would gladly get that better paying job that would allow them to provide for themselves. For millions of people, government aid is often needed to help prevent people from falling into poverty. An NPR article explains, “The 2018 supplemental poverty measure found that Social Security benefits kept more than 27 million people out of poverty last year and that refundable tax credits did the same for almost 8 million people. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, known as food stamps, also kept an estimated three million people from becoming poor.” The government invests money in poverty because of how many millions of people it impacts.
#2: People in poverty are uneducated. If they just went to college they wouldn’t be poor.
“Emma” sustained serious injuries after a bad car accident in November 2017. During her time recovering, she also became diagnosed with a rare health condition that forced her to step down from her successful nursing career. Shorter after, her husband abandoned her and her two young boys. Emma was forced to move back into her parents’ home in Stokes county. - Story provided by YVEDDI
Emma has a Bachelor’s degree in nursing, and had already been working for several years when crisis struck her. Her situation is not unusual. 44.5% of people in poverty in North Carolina have an associate’s degree or higher. Although obtaining a college degree betters your chances of having gainful employment, it is not a guarantee to prevent poverty.
#3: The US doesn’t have much poverty.
According to the Census Bureau, about one in every eight people in 2018 lives in poverty across the United States. That amounts to about 41.8 million individuals, or 13.1% of the population. In North Carolina alone there are 1,422,154 poor people. That is 14.1% of the state’s population. North Carolina has the 14th highest poverty rate in the nation.
#4: Poverty = Homeless people
There’s a common misunderstanding that you can only be in poverty if you are homeless. Although the homeless are in poverty, they are in an extreme form of poverty. “On any given night, North Carolina has more than 9,000 homeless people," an NC government report says. But according to the Census, North Carolina has 1.4 million people who live in poverty. Clearly, poverty is more than homelessness.
So what qualifies someone as living in poverty? "The 2019 poverty standard was $25,750 for a family with two adults and two children. For a couple, the poverty standard is $16,910. This means a family of four who’s annual income is $24,000 is living in poverty, while a couple making $18,000 annually would be considered at risk of living in poverty.” (Poverty In America: How Does North Carolina Stack Up?)
#5: Getting a job is the key to preventing poverty
“Robert” took a temporary position that was scheduled to end after three weeks, but lasted two months. He earned praise and recognition for his good work. As the project came to an end, Robert was considered for permanent employment. A background check was run as part of his application, and he was subsequently dismissed. Still motivated and determined to be employed, Robert applied to numerous positions, but was never offered a job. Robert had a diploma, work skills, and work experience, but his prior convictions were a major barrier in regaining employment. - Story provided by I-CARE
This seems like it can’t be a myth, but the truth is having a job doesn’t always put you above the poverty line. There are many people who work, sometime multiple jobs, and still cannot make a living income. These people are called the working poor. “The “working poor” are people who spend 27 weeks, or more working each year or are looking for work, but whose incomes fall below the poverty level. Low earnings continues to be the largest barrier between working poor and escaping poverty.” (Center for Poverty Research at University of California)
Getting a job can also be a monstrous task for some people, especially those who have a disability or a criminal record.
#6: There’s no link between health and poverty
“Derek” and “Amy” are living a small, old house with their two children. The carpet hasn’t been replaced in decades. Both of their children have asthma and the cost for the medication and doctor visits took up a large portion of their income. Although they wanted to eat healthy, they couldn’t afford fresh foods, instead having to buy boxed and heavily processed food products. All of that changed when a Community Action Agency replaced their filthy old carpet. Within weeks of the new vinyl wood flooring being installed, the children’s asthma went away. No longer needing to buy medication and attend regular doctor’s visits, they could now afford fresh food. - Story provided by NCCAA
“Poverty is both a cause and a consequence of poor health. Poverty increases the chances of poor health. Poor health, in turn, traps communities in poverty.” (Health Poverty Action)
Just like in Derek and Amy’s family, poor living conditions can cause illness and long-term health conditions. The cost of continuing medical care pulls away resources that could be placed elsewhere to improve their lives. Some families find themselves in financial crisis when battling cancer, diabetes and other serious health conditions. Some of these are caused by their poor living environment, or sometimes they are forced to live in less-than-ideal conditions because of their health condition. No matter the situation, or what caused it, there is a clear link between health and poverty.
#7: There are no lasting affects on children who grow up in poverty. They have the same opportunities as children who do not live in poverty.
NC Policy Watch found that “More than 1 in 5 kids in North Carolina are growing up in families that can’t give them a good start to in life because they are paid wages too low to afford the basics."
Children in poverty are at a disadvantage compared to children who do not grow up in poverty. The clearest reasons are financial. Even with both parents working, some families must choose between paying rent and eating a full meal for the next few weeks. A parent with an underpaying job can’t afford to put their child in sports, performing arts, or any other extracurricular activity because they can’t afford anything except the bare minimum. A parent who must work multiple jobs a day is not around to raise their child and give them the emotional support they need. Some families still rely on their teenage children to provide additional income to support the family. This kind of hand-to-mouth living situation forces adults and children into a “scarcity mindset”. They struggle to think of the future because they are so focused on surviving for the next few days or weeks. In this mindset, neither adult nor child are thinking about college, careers or higher achievements. Even if they are, they often feel that these dreams are unattainable to them, and their lot in life is to just try to survive.
A Guardian article continues,“Perhaps more damaging in the long term are the findings on how people feel about themselves when they’re in poverty. They are less confident in their ability to succeed, leading to decreased professional and educational attainment, depression and anxiety. The study also reported a 'negative self-stereotyping' effect, whereby people in long-term poverty absorbed the prevalent media stereotypes of people on benefits or facing unemployment as being 'low in warmth and low in competence'. Believing themselves to be fundamentally flawed, any achievement is tempered by a lack of confidence and subconscious self-loathing.” Children are especially susceptible to these patterns of negative thoughts and stereotypes. They grow up believing they are incapable of achieving and so the cycle of poverty starts again with their own children.
#8: If you’re not officially poor, you’re doing okay
Everyone has a year or two in their life where finances are tight. If you’ve already experienced living paycheck-to-paycheck, you understand the extreme stress and pressure you feel. Teetering on the edge of poverty can be just as stressful as living in poverty. In those situations of slim financial resources, the difference between poverty and not officially poor can be as little as one $400 unexpected expense. That’s why government safeguards like SNAP benefits are in place. These benefits help keep Americans from falling into poverty and are designed to be a short-term aid when it’s needed.
#9: Handouts will bankrupt us
On September 27, 2019, “Rebecca” walked into my office looking for help. She was homelessness, unemployment, had medical conditions, and limited family support. I sat down with her and started talking through an action plan. Rebecca said she was told to file for disability due to her medical condition by several people, but she did not want to depend on a Social Security check to provide for her and her son that could be terminated at any time. She was determined not to let her medical condition stop her from succeeding. We started by paying for two months of rent ($1,000) to help her avoid eviction and then began training. She completed an online customer service certification program and re-enrolled into a four-year Business Administration program at Wayne Community College. We gave her a referral to Verizon Wireless, helped her write her resume and prepare for the interview. Rebecca had been hospitalized and lost a lot of weight due to her medical condition, so we worked together to find her interview ready clothes that helped her feel confident. On October 9, 2019, Rebecca let us know she had an interview with Verizon Wireless for a Business Account Manager position. Two days later, Rebecca was offered the position, which came with a starting salary of $38,400. Rebecca said she will never forget the support she received from WAGES, but especially from her Case Manager who was more of a family support than a resource. - Story provided by WAGES, Inc.
All “handouts” are an investment in another person’s future. Providing temporary aid to someone in poverty allows them the resources they need to improve the future for themselves. Rebecca is just one of millions of people who can end poverty in their lives through community investment. People who have lived in poverty are more likely to give back to the community by investing in the lives of others who are currently in poverty. This combination of giving back and growing the economy can have a snowball effect that brings more and more people out of poverty, thereby improving standard of living and decreasing the money needed to help those who are struggling.
#10: It doesn’t affect me, I’ll never be poor.
“Emma” sustained serious injuries after a bad car accident in November 2017. During her time recovering, she also became diagnosed with a rare health condition that forced her to step down from her successful nursing career. Shorter after, her husband abandoned her and her two young boys. Emma was forced to move back into her parents’ home in Stokes county. - Story provided by I-CARE
Emma is an excellent example of how poverty can affect anyone. Emma’s life went from stable to poverty in a matter of months. Although we want to think that our savings and safeguards will prevent us from poverty, the truth is something as simple as a long-term illness, disability or even an uncontrollable change in the economy can put you at risk of poverty.
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There are many ways you can help us fight poverty in North Carolina:
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