The Despair of Poverty

Imagine climbing a mountain with no helmet, no harness and no pitons or belaying ropes to keep you safe.  You constantly slide back because there’s no support to help you succeed.  You keep trying, one attempt after another, until you are physically and emotionally exhausted.  Then despair overwhelms you and you give up.

That’s what it’s like to be poor in America.  Poor people don’t choose to be poor. They are born into poverty and our social welfare programs are designed to ensure they never have the tools to climb the mountain and escape poverty.

Public assistance (“welfare”) programs like Medicaid, Food Stamps and public housing are based on household income.  The income assessment is done monthly and there’s no leeway.  Either you’re below the dollar limit for eligibility or you’re not. You’re not allowed to build up a nest egg, the pitons that could save you from falling.  Getting a job means losing all support and you’ll plummet down the mountain.

Of course, most poor people are too wealthy to qualify for public assistance even though their low paying jobs don’t cover the rent and the light bill, let alone food and school fees. Every day they must decide whether to buy gas for the car to get to their job or buy food.  They can’t do both.

Their kids go to school in clothes bought at a thrift shop or donated by a charity. Other kids mercilessly “tease” them for their shabby clothes and cheap sneakers. Poor kids live every day with emotional stress that would flatten an able-bodied adult.  They are beaten down by the despair of knowing they have no climbing gear to take them up the mountain.

Every time a poor family gets two nickels, a dollar’s worth of bills pop up.  The car breaks down.  The landlord raises the rent.  The unpaid balance on the electric bill plus the “restoration” fee wipes out a month’s pay.  You’re banging your head on rocks as you fall down the mountain.

Then a family member gets sick.  Poor people either can’t afford to buy health insurance or the co-pays, deductibles and coinsurance guarantee there’s no way to pay the hospital and doctor bills.  A collection agency relentlessly pursues payment before a person is healthy.  The now utterly exhausted poor person gives up.

When poverty intersects with American culture, the results are rotten for the poor.  We’re taught that people can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps if they’d only try harder.  Our Protestant tradition encourages us to blame poor people for being poor as if poverty is a punishment from God.

Yes, poor people often make bad decisions. But so do better-off people. The difference is that better off people have helmets, harnesses, pitons and belaying ropes from birth in the form of family and friends who save them from falling down the mountain.  When we blame the poor for their poverty, we ignore the barriers blocking their climb and we accept the despair of poverty.


About Norma Shirk

My company, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor, helps employers (with up to 50 employees) to create human resources policies and employee benefit programs that are appropriate to the employer’s size and budget. The goal is to help small companies grow by creating the necessary back office administrative structure while avoiding the dead weight of a bureaucracy.  To read my musings on the wacky world of human resources, see the HR Compliance Jungle ( which alternates on Wednesday mornings with my history blog, History By Norma, (available at To read my musings on a variety of topics, see my posts on Her Savvy (

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