Do People Choose Poverty?

by | Mar 9, 2017

It’s a common refrain. A person wouldn’t be in this situation if they had just made better choices.

That myth on poverty blew up in the public sphere this week as part of the healthcare debate. Stephen Pimpare, a professor at the University of New Hampshire wrote this op-ed in the Washington Post directly challenging this myth.

As a Development Director for a human services agency, these myths about poverty are ones I run up against all of the time. 

  • “If they can’t find housing they can afford, they should just move further out, where it’s cheaper.”
  • “She doesn’t need a big screen television, if she can’t afford her housing.”
  • “They just have to prioritize their budget like the rest of us do.”

However, it’s never that simple.

We have a client who works in the city and lives here along Richmond Highway. His commute, which is only about 20 miles, took him almost two full hours using public transportation, one way, each day to get into the city. That’s almost four hours each day that was lost to him, where he could not earn money and he could not spend time doing other productive activities, like taking a class. Four hours…that is half a work day lost in travel time. If he moved any further out, he would have only added more time to his commute, and he might have only saved a little in the extra rent.

Our clients sometimes do have large television sets. Television costs have gone down significantly in past years, and sometimes clients receive them as gifts. The cost of television and basic cable can be cheaper than other forms of entertainment, especially when you have children. 

We do work with our clients on budgeting. One thing we have seen recently, and as you’ll see in our most recent client profile, is that healthcare issues and cost are increasingly a driving factor leading to episodic homelessness. Clients are often forced to work while receiving critical treatment for chronic and/or catastrophic illnesses like cancer. Even with healthcare coverage, clients can find themselves saddled with thousands of dollars in medical bills before their deductibles kick in. They are being forced to choose between putting food on the table, rent, healthcare and even childcare, because between them they often add up to more than their income, no matter how strict they try to be with their expenses. 

I use storytelling about real clients to try and counteract these myths and I often roll out statistics about life here in Fairfax County. Sometimes I win my case, and sometimes I don’t. Regardless, I hope my listener will take a way from our conversation one thing: poverty and homelessness are complex issues, and there is always more to a person’s story.