At a rally in West Virginia on the 29th of September in 2018 President Trump did a fair amount of boasting about the economy and his successes with job creation and plummeting poverty rates. “Our economy is booming like never before. Remember, I told you. And by the way, your state is booming like never before. Poverty is plummeting, our stock market is soaring, reached its all-time high, by the way, in history, which I view as: jobs, jobs, jobs.” It’s a great sound bite and it definitely bolsters a feeling of trust that Trump is accomplishing great things within our economic climate. The reality, however, is a little bleaker. According to the government’s own census information, the poverty rate has only dropped .4 percent since 2016, leaving 12.3 percent of Americans living in poverty. Take into account the possibility that the government has used things like social security income and SNAP benefits to push someone’s income above the poverty level and the “plummet” becomes even more suspect.
The fact remains that 39.7 million Americans are currently living in poverty, which, in 2019 means that a family of four is making $25,750 or less. I am one of those Americans. I am ready to speak out about living at (or in my case below) the poverty line in the US despite my embarrassment. Poverty isn’t going away, and the vast majority of Americans want to believe that it is. Someone has to get past the shame and let people know what’s really going on. My upcoming series “Living Below The Poverty Line” will explore problems within the system, day to day life living in poverty, and what we can do as Americans to help make real change. Stick with me for this series. It’s going to be a wild ride.
I want to start with the metaphorical elephant in the room and answer how I ended up living below the line because the truth is this is never someone’s life goal. In 2016 I left an abusive man and pretty much everything I had in the world (money, physical possessions) to keep myself and my child safe. Since the day I left the struggle to recover my once financially stable life has been non-stop. It’s not an uncommon story, and quite honestly if you’re ever wondering why someone wouldn’t leave an abusive relationship; monetary struggles are a key factor in the decision to stay. However, this is just my own personal story. The reasons someone may end up in poverty vary greatly and despite the misconception that it’s due to laziness, that’s almost never the case. Mental health, unexpected life expenses, company lay-offs, natural disasters, racial bias… These all can be a reason someone ends up living in poverty. Poverty does not mean someone doesn’t have a job. It doesn’t mean someone isn’t trying. It means someone is not making an income that supports even the barest of life essentials most of the time.
The past two months I’ve had to make decisions about which life essentials I’m going to skip and which ones I’m going to pay for. I’m currently behind on rent for my apartment because I am also on medications that are expensive and cannot be skipped. I have paid the electric bill in partial payments since November, and my phone plan is the most bare-bones option I could possibly find. I do not have a name brand phone and fancy clothes. I’m not the stereotype many love to invoke when talking about families needing government assistance. I work several jobs and often sacrifice sleep to do side hustles like working online customer service positions just to make a little extra money. I do have benefits like SNAP which I budget down to the penny and sometimes I still need to ask the local food bank for help. I have rental assistance, and energy assistance to keep my apartment heated. I utilize patient assistance programs for some of my medications but that’s not an option for every prescription. Even with all the help I have, I still struggle. There’s a lot of conversation about how easy it must be to have the government pay for your food, or help with your rent. The truth is even with these things most of us living in poverty still are unable to make ends meet. Government assistance is not the key to living the easy life. It’s what keeps me from living in a homeless shelter, at least for now.
Trying to thrive while living below the poverty line feels impossible about 99% of the time. Many families in a situation like mine do not have other options to ask for help. Personally, I do not have the option to call extended family and ask for help paying rent/electric/whatever emergency has come up. Thankfully my child has a wonderful father (who is not the abuser I left) and has not had to worry about not having the things he needs for school and life. That’s not the case for every child living in poverty, and that’s heartbreaking. Knowing an adult cannot afford food is bad enough, but when a child is also going hungry it’s even more devastating to think about. Making the decision to share my story with the world wasn’t easy. I know there are people who will criticize and mock. I know there are also people who will be supportive. Most of all though, I know there are millions of families out there who need someone to share what is really going on.
Millions of Americans right now are wondering if their lights are still going to be on tomorrow. They’re wondering how they’re going to afford an unexpected illness that can’t be solved without seeing a doctor. They’re hoping no one notices their outfit is the same one they wore five days ago because that’s how limited their clothing options are. Poverty is not plummeting no matter how good it might sound to say that it is at a rally. Poverty rates are stagnant at best, and it’s time to be less ashamed and more open. So that’s what I’ll be doing from now on. Trump can campaign based on sound bites, but I’ll be writing based on truth.