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  • When material poverty persists, it is harder to tackle the nontangible factors contributing to poverty. Tweet This
  • Is it really so hard to believe that most people would use the extra money to meet their most pressing needs, particularly given that the amount would be regular and expected (as opposed to a surprise windfall)? Tweet This

It was a Friday night in February when I called Gina, a single mom of three, to get her thoughts on a child allowance. She had forgotten about the interview and was at the grocery store with her kids, buying what she needed to make a 33rd-birthday cake for herself. 

“Get back here,” she snapped at her son who was wandering off. “Can I call you back?” she asked me. 

Though I told her that I’d certainly understand if she wanted to reschedule for another night, she called me back once they were home, a duplex situated on a lane of public housing in a small town in southwestern Ohio. 

She was in her kitchen, mixing batter, with the kids clamoring for turns to stir. While multi-tasking with the mastery of a mom, Gina began to tell me her story—how she’d grown up in and out of homeless shelters, and how she was eventually put into the foster care system.

“I don’t want to be on welfare my whole life,” Gina told me. “I don’t want to be my mom.”

“So you had this idea that you wanted to write a different story?” I asked. 

“Absolutely,” she said. “Because I said when I grow up if I do anything in my life I don’t want to be like my mother. And I’ve done everything like her. Abusive men, drugs, relationships.” 

When I asked for her thoughts on how to break the cycle, Gina responded: 

I don’t know. Because I haven’t broken any of the cycle and that’s why I’m afraid…. I feel like it’s just a part of my genes…. I’ve never really got my life together. I’ve always just been a piece of s*** drug addict my whole life.

I push back a bit against this last sentence because I see so many examples of success in the story Gina shared. Two years ago after going through a drug treatment program, she worked to earn back custody of her kids and also kept steady work at a fast food restaurant. She even worked her way up to the position of assistant general manager, earning a $40,000 annual salary. But the pandemic interrupted that life, and since then, Gina has felt herself freefalling back into the poverty she wanted to avoid. 

Gina’s life witnesses to the idea that poverty is about more than a lack of cash. (Though it is about that, too.) Often poverty is trauma-born—from key family relationships that are broken, destructive, or that never-form in the first place—sending reverberations that spread like spidering lines in glass. After bouts with depression and addiction, Gina would be the first to tell you that her well-being is fragile. Successes are hard-won and tenuous. 

Acknowledging the complexity and deep roots of poverty is not to put the blame on individual character deficiencies. Rather, it is to recognize that humans are not atomic but interdependent. A person is not born a blank slate but might have to live with the very real cumulative effects of generations of trauma.  

Work is one way that people make paths forward. As Gina found, the structure and paycheck gave her a sense of control over her life and the freedom to provide for herself and her kids. But when work fails to pay even the basic bills, as is too often the case in America today, and when schedules are so unpredictable that there is little time to plan ahead or make room for other life commitments (whether parenting, church, doctor appointments, counseling, or other nonprofit involvement), then the benefits of work as an anti-poverty measure are diminished. 

When material poverty persists, it is harder to tackle the nontangible factors contributing to poverty. My husband David and I worked for several years for a nonprofit that was committed to helping young adults—particularly the poor and working class—strengthen their romantic and family relationships. One of the things we quickly came to realize is that people who are living in day-to-day survival mode often don’t have the time or resources to invest in pursuing psychological healing or relationship education classes, or to justify the expense of even a modest wedding. An existence focused on meeting basic material needs is one that is necessarily focused on survival in the short-term.

Often poverty is trauma-born—from key family relationships that are broken or destructive, or never-form in the first place—sending reverberations that spread like spidering lines in glass. 

If money does not directly address all of the root causes of poverty, it can help alleviate the stress and suffering that might aggravate things like mental illness or addiction. By helping to cover the lowest needs on Maslow’s hierarchy, it frees up time and energy to work on the higher ones, the spiritual factors that conservatives are right to point out. We would do well to avoid the dualism that poverty is only about money, or conversely that it has nothing to do with money.

That is why, as the debate about cash benefits like a child allowance continues, I’m inclined to say that poor parents need all the help—in a variety of forms and from a variety of sources—they can get. And there is good reason to offer this help regardless of employment status, because of the socially valuable work they are doing as parents to raise the next generation. As a society we choose to subsidize businesses as job-creators. Why not then subsidize parents as people-creators? 

Sure, some parents might not spend a child allowance as wisely as they ought. Some single parents might use it so that they can work fewer hours, or couples might decide to have one parent be primary caregiver (both good things, I’d argue, given the importance of parental attachment in the life of a child).

But is it really so hard to believe that most people would use the extra money to meet their most pressing needs, particularly given that the amount would be regular and expected (as opposed to a surprise windfall)? Couples who cite financial instability as an obstacle to marriage might even get the confidence (and funds) to plan a wedding. 

So long as a benefit is not large enough to replace the need to work, and so long as it is universal enough that it does not impose steep cliffs that prevent social mobility, it seems reasonable to think that a little extra cash could free up families to address some of the thornier issues they face, but are typically unable to prioritize. As Matt Bruenig put it in a recent Solidarity Policy podcast debate with Oren Cass, 

But I think the way that [non-profits and civil society institutions] can help people is a way that the government simply cannot, which is one-to-one connections, relationships, working with people, helping people in a very kind of very niche basis…. [but] getting the money stuff set up, really frees local groups to focus on the stuff they’re going to be better at, which is helping people in these kinds of soft touch situations with day-to-day problems and relationship issues and addiction issues and stuff like that, that money doesn’t really fix. And if you get them out of the business of having to try to collect cash so that they can keep people alive, you take care of that, then you free up the local groups to do what I think they’re the best at.

Gina recently got her stimulus check and posted a snapshot of her Amazon purchase on Facebook—it was a long list of car parts and one celebratory outfit. She’s been trying for months to scrounge up enough money to get her car fixed so she can get back to work without someone having to come jump her car most mornings. Now she can see the pieces coming together—“I’ve got an empire to build,” she says often—explaining that she was rehired at the restaurant and with the help of a friend, her car will be as reliable as a cheap car can be. 

Yet her mom’s legacy is never far from mind, casting self-doubt inopportunely. “I am her. We are one,” Gina says of her mom, a poetic description of an epigenetic reality. And it’s because of this—the complicated nature of human relationships and the formative power of family—that cash is not a quick fix to all of the problems facing lower-income families. Still, it might be a place to start. 

Amber Lapp is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and co-investigator of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project, a qualitative research inquiry into how white, working-class young adults form families and think about marriage. 

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or viewpoint of the Institute for Family Studies.