Problems Poor Face Lead to More Problems .. and Then More

A thoughtful op-ed in the Washington Post asks whether the District’s budget will recognize the struggles of low-income residents. They’re hardly unique to poor and near-poor people in D.C. The occasion and source of the numerous examples are, however.

And both what they tell us and what they don’t quite should give us pause.

The authors are co-chairs of the D.C. Consortium of Legal Services, a coalition of local nonprofits that provide legal advice and representation to low-income residents.

They pull key findings and quotes from the Consortium’s recently-issued report on its innovative study to learn the troubles of prospective clients and what sustains them, besides their own true grit.

What makes the study different from most issued by think thanks, advocates and other interested parties is that the researchers used focus groups and recorded what survey respondents actually said.

So it captured fragments of individuals’ experiences, as well as quantifiable areas of concern. We get those too. For example, we learn, to no one’s surprise, that nearly 60% of respondents worried about not having housing — both those who had it and the nearly one-third who didn’t.

What we don’t get, but can readily infer is that many, if not most District residents living on incomes at or below 200% of the federal poverty line face multiple problems — both housing and food insecurity, for example, plus job insecurity or inability to find a job at all.

Compounding these griefs, residents may, for understandable reasons, have problems paying their rent and other bills and with harassment from debt collectors — problems cited by almost half the respondents.

The survey did try to capture such compounding by asking respondents to name the most significant consequences of the most serious problem they’d recently faced.

So we get some indication of how one problem leads to another — or perhaps others. The survey results, as reported, don’t offer a clear picture of multiple consequences, however. Nor of how consequences multiply.

We know they do from personal stories — and our own reflections on how life is. But I don’t know of a study that maps cumulative sequences of misfortunes common to low-income adults in general.

We do have something pretty close for those who’ve been imprisoned. And most ranked at the bottom of the income scale before. We thus have poverty compounding poverty.

We’ve got a new, justly-acclaimed book that shows how eviction “is a cause, not only a condition, of poverty” — mainly because it leads to job loss, as people miss work to cope, have to move too far away or start making mistakes because they’re so frazzled or depressed.

We also have at least one study on the consequences of not having enough income to cover everyday expenses, plus some extra to set aside for emergencies. Survey results here indicate how not having enough leads to having even less — charges for bounced checks and unpaid credit card balances, for example.

So no loan available when, say, the car breaks down — except from a payday lender or the equivalent. Thus a higher debt burden — and possibly more bounced check charges or loss of the car needed to get to work.

High percents of low-income people with little or no emergency savings report poorer health and less productivity at work because they’re understandably worried about their financial situation.

Either or both can lead to loss of a job — and problems finding another, now that so many employers routinely check credit histories. So a greater likelihood of depression and/or conflict with a spouse or partner. A breakup perhaps. And perhaps then homelessness.

The Consortium co-chairs cite an observation law professor Steven Wexler made many years ago. “Poor people aren’t like rich people without money,” he said. The latter lead “harmonious and settled lives, occasionally disrupted by a car accident … or some other misfortune.”

Money is, in a way, what distinguishes them. But what Wexler clearly intends is a contrast in what happens when a reasonably well-off and a poor person get hit by a car.

The difference isn’t merely that the well-off have good health insurance, paid time off from work and money to rent a car — or auto insurance that covers the cost. The accident is a singular event — not a trouble piling on top of and leading to others.

“[F]or people living in poverty,” the co-chairs say, the car crash and other incidents more dire, e.g., eviction, “are not life’s little disruptions. They comprise life itself.”

The question, they conclude, is what we do with such insights — beyond, of course, advocating for better budgets. I leave you to ponder that, as I still am.

 

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