Friday, April 12, 2024

Hard work alone isn’t antidote to poverty

| August 13, 2020 1:00 AM

“Mom, we’re out of my cereal. We need to get more.”

“Sorry, son. I don’t get paid until next week. You’ll have to wait.”

If you’ve never had that conversation with your kid, who’s already heard “no” to junior tackle or new jeans because you live paycheck to paycheck, you’re lucky. If you’ve never been one medical bill or one car problem away from spiraling debt, you’re extremely lucky.

It’s hard to say no to a great kid who’s earned a perk. It’s frustrating and demoralizing to work six days a week and still have a $35 bank balance.

But we weren’t truly poor. Because I had family to help when it was important. Because when payday came, I bought the cereal.

And there was always something to eat. My kids never went to school hungry, nor did I. I was born to middle-income, basically stable parents. I went to college, with support. I knew things would get better.

We were lucky. Too many kids returning to classrooms have empty stomachs, which makes learning hard. When learning suffers, educational attainment does too. And that keeps generations in the cycle of poverty.

They know things won’t get better because for most of the working poor, they rarely do.

According to Pew Research before the pandemic, 39 million Americans were living in poverty. That’s about 12 percent of the total population (when counted), but even more children — 17 percent — live impoverished. The proportionate number of kids living below the poverty line hasn’t changed much since 1969.

Children are front and center when it comes to breaking out of the cycle of poverty.

Too many parents working full-time can’t afford an average $1,000 monthly for day care, certainly not at minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, the federal poverty wage of $8.13, or even the more currently common $12 an hour. According to MIT’s living wage calculator, an Idaho working parent with one child needs an hourly wage of $23 to pay basic bills.

The cost of living continues to rise faster than wages. Whatever we’ve tried, it’s not effective enough. Part of that may be a lack of understanding (rather than mere judgment or assumption) about the causes of enduring poverty, and well-intentioned but ineffective attempts to connect those experiencing it with the resources and support they need to end it.

Like help navigating the system, and child care while a parent is in school to improve the family’s lot.

The increasing challenges of poverty in these United States are no longer as straightforward as “work harder.” It’s just not that simple today; hard work is essential, but the barriers go beyond that, as complicated and varied as human lives.

Yet it can be done if communities, not just individuals, are all-in when it comes to the hand up.

That’s part of the message national speaker Donna Beegle — a homeless-to-Ph.D. story herself — imparts with her “Communication Across Barriers” workshops, including the immersion institute in Coeur d’Alene next month co-sponsored by our own Charity Reimagined. For more information about that see

“Anyone who has struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” — James Baldwin

• • •

Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at