Falling Down the Economic Ladder

"We can really do something with kids like you."

That's what a YMCA staffperson told my teenaged brother. My brother, sister and I were working at the Y through a summer jobs program for low income youth. It's hard to describe how ridiculous this statement was. Not only did we apparently need fixing, but the person saying so was a heavily made up, 50-something aerobics instructor who seemed convinced that dressing 25 made her so.

Such was our new life. A few years earlier, we didn't qualify as "low income." My parents were still married, and our family of five did fine on my dad's income from the kind of blue collar, union job that's hard to find these days. But my mother needed to leave my father after years of him being violent. She'd stayed longer than she wanted to, as she didn't know how she was going to support us. She took the plunge and started cleaning houses and offices six days a week – all with a bad back and no health insurance or paid time off. No matter how hard she worked, it was never enough, even with a modest house payment. So once our home became a safe place, it was one we barely could hold onto.

We cut back on every conceivable expense, then got food stamps, help from the Heat Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) and occasional grocery donations from church. We hated every moment of it, feeling ashamed of needing help, but we had no choice.

Yet for this aerobics instructor, and many people like her, we were broke because we were doing something wrong.

The Job Training Partnership Act program reached the same conclusion. My brother, sister and I spent four summers in JTPA jobs. Once a summer all participants had to go to a training, usually including "humorous" skits, telling us to show up for work, be on time, dress appropriately and work hard. I can't argue with the messages, and some kids in our program needed to hear them. But not all of us did, and we had a site supervisor to handle problems on a case-by-case basis. Instead, I got to sit through skits that left me feeling humiliated.

No one questioned my work ethic until we escaped family violence. What a weird tradeoff.

I've long since learned how typical that scenario is. Many people love that old trope about teaching a man to fish, instead of giving him fish. But not enough people ask if his fishing skills are the problem.

An emergency rental assistance program in Washington, DC requires recipients to come in for trainings in budgeting. That could be helpful, but again, it depends. Spending yourself into a hole is one thing. Being behind on rent from a long illness is quite another.

A local family shelter found that a handful of residents didn't know how to clean their apartments, so all residents got trained in it. I kept wondering what that felt like for those who didn't need it.

Ironically, well-intended training programs can be a burden, especially for the working poor. Accessing benefits often means missing work to spend countless hours in waiting rooms. Add some trainings, and you may be missing even more work and wages.

I realize that poverty is far from simple, and that personal responsibility can play a role, as can a changing job market which demands new skills. But still, sometimes people get sick, get laid off or lose a spouse. So why do we treat all people who need help as if they have the same needs? And how much money are we wasting this way? When do people need skills training, and when do they just need money to get them through a crisis? How much are training programs driven by need and how much by the deep seated American belief that poverty means you just aren't trying hard enough?

I can already hear the criticism that if you're poor and get help, that you have no right to complain about anything. Well, let me put it this way. Conservatives tend to call the poor lazy. Liberals are more likely to assume they're inept. Either way, getting through poverty with your dignity intact is far from easy.