My first job fresh out of college taught me my first lesson about who is poor. I was working in a pilot project to teach ESL to the children of migrant farm workers. I soon learned that English was not a second language. It was an only language. Why didn’t the children talk? They seemed normal enough—perhaps a little docile.
I soon learned that the base of the children’s language problems arose from the fact that their parents didn’t talk to them at home. These parents were members of the working poor. They worked long hours. Sometimes the men would work all day in the field and half the night in the packinghouse. They didn’t have time or energy to talk to or read to their children. These children were smart. They just didn’t have much experience with language. While I taught language, I learned that people who work hard for long hours will be poor if they don’t make much money at their job. These families were often upwardly mobile—just poor.
I’ve worked with those who have obvious disabilities or mental health conditions. These people I call the visibly disabled. If their disability doesn’t prevent them from earning a livable wage, they face discrimination in the work force. It is possible that the only jobs available to the visibly disabled are for charitable Non-Government Organizations who are exempt from minimum wage so they can lease out disabled workers to for-profit companies looking for cheap labor. In other words the only jobs they can get are where they are exploited—not healthy and they’re still poor.
The elderly comprise a large section of our poor population. Many of the elderly poor come from the working poor or the visibly disabled. Still many were solidly middle class people who saved for retirement and invested in social security, but investments and social security didn’t keep up with inflation. Many widows join the ranks of the poor when their husband dies and they lose a third of their income right when they lose someone who helps with the daily chores.
The fourth and one of the largest sections among the poor are those with invisible—especially cognitive, disabilities. This is another group that I’ve been intensively involved with much of my career. Where do people with invisible disabilities come from? Many of those I work with were prenatally exposed to alcohol. These folks look okay on the outside and even seem smart enough but essential sections of their brains are missing. People with disabilities related to prenatal exposure to alcohol make up a large section of our disability, working poor and prison populations.
Still, alcohol is not the only toxin that causes birth defects. The list of such toxins called teratogens includes prescription medications, PCBs, radiation, rubella virus and many other chemicals or conditions such a hypothermia. Most of these agents cause hidden or cognitive birth defects. Some with those hidden disabilities may have a strong talent that will lift them out of poverty, but the vast majority will continue to need government assistance for life. Note: It is my opinion that companies that produce teratogens should be taxed enough to cover the costs of the problems their industry creates, but that’s not likely to happen.
The fourth group I’ll call the traumatized poor. These are people who have encountered discrimination and abuse at school or work that interfered with their ability to progress toward finishing their education or continuing employment. These people can usually return to the workforce with counseling, education and job training. They need supports in order to be okay.
The last group is the circumstantial poor. These are the IT people who lost their jobs at the beginning of the last recession. They were probably unemployed for up to a year before finding low paying jobs. They will eventually solve their problems independently, but can really benefit from food stamps now.
Another class of circumstantial poor includes those who live in economically disadvantaged regions. The land is too poor to farm and there is no industry to supply jobs. Many people leave these regions, but some cannot for many reasons. Those living in economically disadvantaged regions will need assistance from outside. Here the best help would be to bring in new industry while providing food stamps and other assistance.
This is how I see the structure of poverty after working for forty-seven years in the field of human development. The above populations easily account for all the people who need assistance in our country. As for those who appear to be scamming the systems or are looking for a handout, they probably fit into the invisible disability category. States do have internal auditors who know how to look for those who would cheat the system. There is no reason to think we can save government money by finding cheaters.
The absolutely best way to cut government spending on programs such as WIC, food stamps and head start is to raise the minimum wage high enough to move the working poor into the working class that does not need public assistance.
I hope this clarifies a huge issue in our public discussion about money. If you still believe that there is a huge section of people scamming the system, please, go study about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome then look at the other disabilities related to teratogens. The only people scamming the system are those industries that do not pay for the damage caused by the teratogens they produce and those with high profits that do not pay minimum wage.