Poverty deniers missing a wake-up call

Jessica Tregeagle has been living at the poverty level to help demonstrate to Utahns that being poor just by itself makes it harder to get ahead even a little.

She’s an analyst at the Utah Community Action Program in Salt Lake City. She and another CAP worker, Shawn Teigen, purposely lived at the poverty level this month, gaining real-life experience in how it can be to go hungry, struggle for adequate transportation and just live a subsistence existence.

Their experiment showed that being down and out takes so much hand-to-mouth energy that getting ahead is mostly a fantasy for the 254,000 Utahns who are at or below the federal poverty level.

But in her blog most recently, Tregeagle expressed frustration at critics who she said just don’t want to admit that poverty in the United States is a real problem.

“It upsets me that people make light of poverty in America because it isn’t as bad as other regions of the world,” she wrote. “No, we don’t have large populations of people who lack access to clean water, sanitation or basic education…but poverty is not a competition. Unlike countries such as India, Kenya and Bangladesh, we have the financial means to end chronic poverty. The resources exist in the United States to ensure a minimum standard of living for all of its citizens. No child in America should wonder where there his/her next meal is going to come from, or where he/she is going to sleep each night. All full-time workers should earn a liveable wage. Healthcare should not be a luxury for those fortunate enough to have it provided through their employer.”

The CAP should be commended for its work. It’s demoralizing that the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” crowd can’t lower themselves enough to recognize the real problems and lend a humanitarian hand.

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2 Responses to Poverty deniers missing a wake-up call

  1. Cathy says:

    It is easier to empathize with the poor than to solve the problem – but an educated person has a hard time truly understanding what it would be like to be uneducated. Unfortunately many of the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” people are afraid that helping the poor will enable them rather than be of real help. Which doesn’t help, either. I think the answer lies with education.

  2. ctrentelman says:

    I’ve always felt that the best description of what it is like to live/be poor is not found in experiments like this, which have a fundimental flaw: The people involved KNOW that it is a test. They have a backup, a parachute — parents, the rest of their paycheck, the car they are intentionally not using but could.

    This is critical. True poverty can only be felt mentally — the surity that this will not change next month, that there is no way out, that this grind will go on, and on.

    That’s poverty. Things like this, while certainly worthwhile, are games.

    The best, and certainly most literate, description of poverty I can recall in a long time is “Down and Out in Paris and London” by George Orwell. Orwell really was broke, living in abject poverty, more so in Paris than London because, in England, he was waiting out a month. In Paris he was just, well, poor.

    Having said that, he does verify what these two young women point out — poverty is very very hard work. It is not poverty of lack of stuff, or even lack of money, but poverty that makes it impossible, or at least very time consuming, to function in a society that demands a certain level of ability to get around, to communicate, to function.

    In that respect, no, American poor do not have it “better” than the poor in many other countries. In some ways, poverty in a country with very low standard of living to begin with may even be easier to bear, because you are not living that far below your neighbors.

    Here, the poor live miles below the rich. Their place in society is driven home to them daily.

    Education may help someone avoid poverty, but once you are in poverty, education alone may not be enough to get you out. Horatio Alger stories aside, we read rags-to-riches stories because they are so unique, not because they are the norm.

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