The 2014 federal poverty guidelines considers a family of three earning $19,790 or less as living in poverty. That translates to an hourly wage of $9.51 for a full-time worker. The minimum wage in California is $9.00 per hour, raised this past July 1st from $8.00 per hour. In LA County, to be making a living wage, – meaning earning enough to maintain a safe, decent standard of living within the community – our same full-time worker has to make between $21.62 and $27.15 per hour.
The average fair market rent for a two bedroom apartment in Long Beach is about $1,400 per month. A full-time minimum wage earner would have to spend nearly 90% of their income on rent alone. Child care in Los Angeles County can cost anywhere between $9,000 per year for preschool to $13,000 for infant care. There again, our full-time worker would spend between 48-69% of their income on child care. We haven’t even touched on food, transportation, health care, etc. Obviously, the dollars don’t stretch that far; the math doesn't add up.
I won’t talk about what’s right or wrong, who’s to blame, or even the role that government and non-profit organizations should play in addressing the serious issues surrounding poverty (since I work for a non-profit organization which operates in part from government funding, I suspect my opinion on this is probably pretty clear). I do want to try to show, from our point of view, what poverty looks like in a real, day in, day out, dollars and cents way; how it limits choices and opportunities, and how the families we work with find ways to endure, work around, and overcome.
Creating Community from Scratch
A large number of the families we serve come to us from domestic violence shelters. After enduring prolonged abuse from their partner and parent, these families have had to flee for their safety, leaving behind most of their possessions to move to a shelter, usually some distance away from where they lived. Along the way, they’ve lost their source of income (if the abuser was the breadwinner or if the survivor had to leave their work behind) – and in many instances, they've lost the social supports they had in friends and family within their community. So, the women in these shelters turn to each other. Out of necessity, and bonded through a shared trauma, they become one another’s emergency contact, share child care duties, and pool their resources to lift each other up and out.
I Take Three Buses to Get Here
More often than not, the reason that many of the families we work with falter on their way towards housing and financial stability is transportation. When you don’t have enough money for the bus or you can’t afford gas or repairs for the car, you can’t get your children to their child care, you don’t make it to school on time, you miss out on that job interview. Transportation issues may be a temporary inconvenience for some of us, but for these families, they can be the hinge from which their plans for the future swing; they can make all the difference between getting there and not getting there.
Priced Out of Long-Term Planning
It’s easy to become short-sighted when you are living in poverty. If all of your resources and energy are focused on putting one foot in front of the other, on dealing with the immediate crises impacting your family, there won’t be much left to plan for a more stable life. More than that, it is easy to believe that you’ll never climb out of the hole you’re in. So, when families do manage to climb up and out, when they exercise their will to work towards a better future that is really hard to see through all the obstacles in their path, they define success and become examples that I believe we can all learn from.
To read more about the the long-term effects of poverty, check out this terrific NPR article, titled This Is Your Stressed-Out Brain on Scarcity.