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The Other Costs of Poverty

The Other Costs of Poverty

Maria Konnikova, writing for the New York Times series, “The Great Divide,” quotes Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan, on the non-physical characteristics of poverty:

“There are three types of poverty,” he says. “There’s money poverty, there’s time poverty, and there’s bandwidth poverty.”

Mullainathan describes perfectly a phenomenon experienced by my friend, Mike D., who lives in East Durham. Mike’s struggle only begins with scarce financial resources. It’s the pressures of time and capacity required to manage the multiple challenges associated with poverty that leave him exhausted and rarely if ever with even one day to do anything except think about getting through that day and on to the next.

Mike is a single dad with a teenage daughter. He has full custody by choice in his commitment to keep his daughter out of harm’s way in her mother’s environs where drugs and adult men are regular fixtures. Mike has documented health issues that limit his ability to stand for long periods of time. Nonetheless, he works any job he can get, usually as part of a clean-up crew in buildings or at construction sites, and goes door-to-door for yard work to help make ends meet.

But that’s just it – in Mike’s case, the ends rarely meet, and when they do, it’s a fragile joining that takes every dollar, every hour, every ounce of energy Mike has to keep it together – or more likely, to try to put it back together. Here’s how it works:

Mike lives in subsidized housing, receives food stamps, gets some disability support, and, when he’s working, minimum-wage income, all of which add up to about $1000 a month, or $12,000 a year. The most common decisions he has to make have nothing to do with actually improving his circumstances but everything to do with just keeping himself and his daughter going on a day-to-day basis. For example, when it comes to rent, he has two options: he can pay $450 a month or $150 a week. He will never have $450 all at once because the supports he receives all come at different times of the month, so he’s on the significantly more expensive weekly rental plan. If he can’t make his rent payment on the due date, he incurs a penalty of up to $50 a day. And if he’s more than two days late, he’s likely to be locked out of his place, without access to his or his daughter’s belongings, and then he’s faced with another dilemma. Since single adult men are not allowed to take female children into shelters, Mike and his daughter have to sleep outside or, when he can manage it, take a motel room for a couple of nights. The poverty clock is ticking while Mike races to acquire the security deposit and first week’s rent that will buy him another place to live. It’s not unusual to find him mowing or raking in the dark, after a full day at work.

It’s also not unusual to find him at a local check cashing joint, forfeiting $25 in fees because the folks whose lawn he mowed couldn’t pay him in cash. Mike faces hard choices all the way in trying to make those elusive ends meet, and at least get a hot meal and a safe space for his daughter. What are the easy decisions when rent takes 75 percent of your income, and you have to feed and clothe two people, get to work, and pay for school supplies?

So poverty isn’t only about money, and it’s certainly not about unwillingness to make hard choices. As Mullainathan writes,” The poor are under a deadline that never lifts, pressure that can’t be relieved.” “Never” and “can’t” are hard words that serve to cement the systemic barriers our nation has created that prevent millions of Americans like Mike and his daughter from escaping the relentless and unyielding scarcity of time, money, and capacity that together create poverty. At MDC, we are committed to breaking down those barriers through initiatives that help low-income people get the education they need to secure living-wage work and become financially secure.

For nearly fifty years, this formula of combining education, work, and assets has helped thousands of people find pathways out of poverty and into opportunity in and beyond the South. But it’s not enough. Nations, not individuals, decide whether to live with poverty. Some will always have more than others, but shouldn’t everyone have enough?