Aug. 15, 2016
By Joanne Goldblum
Our government aid policies actually perpetuate poverty by fighting it with short sighted half measures.
I attended to the big picture stuff, like getting them subsidized housing and making sure that everyone was signed up with Medicaid. As a social worker serving families who had been homeless, I was supposed to help them dodge the catastrophes that could land them back on the street. Today, I understand that it does not take a catastrophe: Families are often pushed over the edge by things so mundane that we fail to provide help or even to take notice. Thus we increase the likelihood that poverty will be permanent.
When I saw my client Sallie dump the solids out of a diaper and put it back on her baby, I was shocked. “That’s not healthy,” I explained and urged her to use a clean diaper every time. Sallie told me she couldn’t afford enough diapers to do that. I reminded her that she was on a number of aid programs, including Food Stamps and WIC, which buys groceries for pregnant women and babies. She replied that none of these programs can be used to pay for diapers – and she was right. Yes, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (often called welfare) pays cash benefits. But those payments do not even amount to the market-rate rent on a two-bedroom apartment in any state in the country.
Sallie was stuck. She qualified for subsidized child care. But centers require that parents supply disposable diapers for their children, and without child care, she could not attend the job training program required to receive “benefits.” And without a job, of course, she could not afford diapers. She was trapped in one of poverty’s ubiquitous Catch-22s.
She was not alone. An industry survey found that one in three low-income American families struggles to afford diapers. Another study, one we collaborated on with Yale researchers, showed that 30 percent of low-income mothers said they could not afford to change their children’s diapers as often as they wanted. I started the National Diaper Bank Network to attack this problem. Our members have distributed 98 million diapers and serve about 350,000 children a month. That is fabulous – and completely inadequate. There are 5.3 million babies living in poor and low-income families in this country. We need to get on the other side of that decimal point.
Feminine hygiene products are essential, as are shampoo, toothpaste, laundry detergent. Imagine preparing for a job interview if you had none of these. When jobs move away from cities, workers frequently find that there is no public transportation option. And here is another Catch 22: If they attempt to save up for the down payment on even an old clunker, they will likely run over the asset limit for public aid.
Basic needs are more than food and shelter. Yet that’s what safety net programs provide. In fact, calling any of our safety net programs “anti-poverty” is a stretch. They are “keep-you-alive-but-still-in-poverty” programs.
Likewise, low-wage jobs leave Americans unable to meet their basic needs. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour ($2.13 an hour for tipped employees!), which would yield $250.40 after taxes for a 40-hour work week. The median rental in the U.S. is $934. There is barely enough for food. Certainly, there’s nothing left for a winter coat for a child, a bottle of acetaminophen, a stick of deodorant.
I am a social worker, not a legislator. My purpose is not to lay out a policy agenda. As a social worker, however, I have a lot of experience with patterns of thinking that trap people in a bad place. In this case, it is a country that needs to change its thinking.
There has always been a suspicion that people take advantage of public assistance and charity – and that both must be appropriately meager to discourage malingering. Every year we see lawmakers in various states propose that assistance recipients be tested for drugs – the implication being that aid to the poor gets immediately diverted to drug dealers. The cost of these screenings would be better spent providing the resources that people need to escape poverty.
I am honored to be a part of a new movement that is fighting for basic needs. People are telling their state legislatures that things like feminine hygiene products and diapers should not be subject to sale tax, because they are basic needs. Anyone who disagrees has, I suspect, never had occasion to use either. The White House has recognized diaper need as a serious issue. They have worked with the private sector to help address the issue of diaper need, and President Obama called for an end to diaper need in America. Congress is currently weighing a measure to dedicate some public funding to diapers.
The Fight for 15 also goes on. And whenever some politician gets an idea about submitting the most vulnerable members of our society to further humiliations just to get a brick of surplus cheese, there is a mighty outcry from people who see the cruel stupidity of it.
That outcry needs to get louder and it needs to be organized. We must make America see the truth that has long stared us in the face: Our policies perpetuate poverty by only fighting it with half measures. We give people just enough to keep them hanging by a thread, but not enough for them to get on their feet.
Sallie could explain that better than I. She could talk about the inanity of a system that left her no way to diaper her baby, and therefore no way to access day care, and therefore no way to get job training.
Why does one in five American children live in poverty? Because we are too shortsighted to give their parents the tools they need to become self-sufficient. In the long run, this costs us all more by perpetuating intergenerational poverty. If as a nation we will not grow kinder, we should at least get smarter.
Joanne Goldblum is CEO of the National Diaper Bank Network and a former Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Fellow.
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