This article about fairness struck a nerve with me. I’m a counselor, and my clientele consists mostly of people who live in extreme poverty. Working with this population is frustrating for many reasons, but by far the biggest challenge is that the system is so stacked against them. As a counselor, I work with the individual, and I have to believe in an individual’s ability to change his or her life. But when I see people constantly being pushed back by a system that does a better job of keeping them in severe poverty than lifting them out of this, this gets challenging.
Take Paul*, for example. Paul wanted to be the first person in his family to hold a real job. He came from a family of drug dealers. Frankly, they could make a lot more money selling drugs than they could at any of the jobs they were qualified to hold. But Paul wanted to be the first to change the cycle.
I helped Paul to get enrolled in the local employment agency run by the state. He qualified for a stipend to be trained in wielding. For a young adult who had not even entered his twenties and had a new baby to support, wielding would provide him a good, stable income. And at around 40K per year, it was much more money than the minimum wage jobs that would otherwise have been open to him.
Before he could go to his first class, he was in a crash that totaled his car. Now, personally coming from a middle class background, when my car broke down in college my parents bent over backwards so that I could use their car for the few remaining months of college I had left. Paul, however, had no such safety net. It was the only car his entire family had and they did not have the financial resources to get a new one. And public transit where I work is non-existent. He would have had to walk a prohibitively long distance to get to the training.
So Paul was unable to get to the training he needed to get trained in sustainable work. And here’s the thing, if he had come from a different background, his chances of being able to find a ride to the training to get certified increased. This is an example of how being born to the parents we are born to can influence how successful we are in life. A child born to wealthy parents wouldn’t have to worry about transportation at all. His parents can buy him a car and an Ivy League education. Someone born to middle class parents might struggle with transportation from time to time but can usually work something out. But someone born to impoverished parents, losing a car means losing a job or losing your spot at school.
Making sure every city has good public transit would be a terrific way to combat this problem. But I don’t see a lit of momentum towards this.
Then there are people like Derrick. Derrick had made good money as a wielder. In fact, he was doing so good he never considered getting an education. Wielding is hard on the body, however, and by his mid-thirties he was disabled as a result of his work as a wielder.And even though wielding is a hazardous occupation, he wasn’t offered disability benefits. As he never got more than a high school education there wasn’t a lot of work he qualified for that did not involve hard labor. And he had a family with young children to support.
It’s easy to see how a younger Derrick would have thought wielding was a good long term bet. When you’re young it’s hard to believe that your body will wear out. You think you’ll be young and strong forever. Derrick never thought about having a backup plan.
Someone with a wealthier background would likely have the financial or familial resources to fall back on while they get the education they need to make a career change. Derrick did not have either. His parents were strung out on drugs and he had had to cut off contact with them. So Derrick was scrambling, trying to get an education while supporting his family on his wife’s part time minimum wage job and unable to pay for the surgeries he needed for his work injuries.
Had Derrick and Paul made poor choices? Yes. However, has every choice you made been a good one?
For my clients, getting caught with drugs in high schools leads them to being expelled or thrown in jail. Most do not even have a high school degree. Once they’re in the system, it’s hard to get out. Ethan Couch, on the other hand, killed four pedestrians when he was 16 while driving drunk. Because of his parents’ wealth, the judge ruled he was a victim of “affluenza” and sent him to a long term rehab facility and 10 years’ probation. Even though this is his second alcohol related offense. While I don’t think jail help rehabilitate anyone, the point is my clients would not be so lucky. They would have gone to jail for a very long time because they did not have the financial resources that Ethan Couch’s parents did.
For my clients having a car accident means losing a job. For my clients, working a job means risking potential disability that someone who was able to afford the education to get an office position cannot fathom. And the reason for this is because they don’t have money. They are impoverished, and they are punished for that.
I feel I walk a tightrope between encouraging them to find a way to change their lives and blaming them for their own poverty. I can see how the web of the environment around them landed them where they are and the obstacles they face to getting out of it. Biggest of these obstacles is learned helplessness. They tried in the past to escape poverty and failed. Why bother even trying?
And the point I keep coming back to as a counselor is I can only focus on the individual. And I feel powerless when I look at that individual in the context of the system around them. There are a few who I think I helped to climb out of the poverty ladder somewhat. Those people had something going for them. One was a genius who was offered a living stipend so he could attend university. Most of those who I feel have benefited the most from my services had some sort of family system in place that they could fall back on.
One thing I wish is that as a nation we become more caring to those who were not born with the same benefits that we were. From building a good public transit system, which would benefit people of all classes, to mentoring programs that would help at risk children and families, there are things that we can invest in that would help people in poverty lead sustainable and productive lives. But we first have to lose the thinking that people are to blame for their social status.
*Names and other identifying material of my clients are changed to protect their privacy.