An important message about poverty

I talk a lot about poverty on the campaign trail, and it’s come to my attention that when I say things like “poverty is at the root of a lot of community problems” some people take that to mean that poor people cause community problems. 

No. Absolutely no.

First of all, poverty is a set of conditions in which a person lives, it’s not an identity. “Poor” is not a type of person, it’s just a description of economic reality.

I grew up poor. I’ve been poor off an on through my adult life. It didn’t ever decrease my value as a human being or my contribution to the community. It doesn’t invalidate my achievements. It doesn’t make me a different person. But it absolutely changes the basis on which decisions get made. How you manage your time, money, and relationships when you have steady and sufficient income, a reliable safety net, and a sense of security about those things remaining stable is completely different to how you manage things under financial stress, lack of stability, and minimal resources – not because poverty makes you do stupid things, but because the whole paradigm changes. “Now” becomes far more crucial than “later.” The amount of risk you’re willing to take changes. Priorities shift. Some things become essentially impossible and, therefore, not even worth worrying about – things like saving for retirement or improving a credit score or going to the dentist if it’s not an emergency.

The economic reality of poverty restricts opportunity. It restricts access to resources. It doesn’t define people, but it can drastically change the course of a person’s life. Our society measures people with numbers – credit scores, income brackets, account balances, years of residence, years on the job, available hours, amount of debt – and poverty weaponizes those numbers.

The same conditions which cause people to fall into poverty and struggle to escape it give rise to a majority of other problems in our communities.

Just one example: We talk about the decrease in homeownership, increase in neglectful landlords, the problem of nuisance properties and vacant homes. The same factors which cause people not to be able to qualify for mortgages and to need low cost housing also support the behaviors we’re trying to battle. If there wasn’t such a large portion of the population in Springfield who needed low-cost housing, the landlords in town wouldn’t be struggling to balance their financial commitment to upkeep with the much smaller profits cheap apartments bring in. Developers don’t want to build low cost housing because there’s less profit to be made there, and they seek to build apartments which attract the most profitable tenants. If landlords can cut corners and cut costs and otherwise maximize what money they can make off the most economically vulnerable, what incentive is there for them not to? Certainly we’ve not done a good job as a city of intervening on behalf of those citizens. And so it’s become more profitable to let properties rot and be vacant until they can be sold. Fewer people in lower income brackets can actually get mortgages, so low cost housing stock in less affluent neighborhoods end up as rentals (renting at more than the mortgage payment, of course) or vacant problem spots. And despite the fact that rent is almost always more expensive on a monthly basis than a mortgage, the circumstances which make low-cost rental housing necessary also make getting mortgage approval essentially impossible.

Another: Living in poverty conditions makes it more likely that a person will end up in violation of the law. It costs money to stay compliant with city ordinances. And the mechanism of poverty which makes it more likely for people to neglect legal obligations in order to meet more basic needs like keeping their job or paying their rent also make it exponentially more difficult to remedy the situation once they’re in trouble with the law. This becomes a cycle that jeopardizes a person’s housing and employment, further exacerbating poverty and making it more likely that future legal problems will be even more significant. The system which perpetuates poverty also perpetuates crime. It overstresses law enforcement, the courts, and overcrowds jails. It drives a thriving bail bond industry which takes further advantage of those in poverty. It impacts the children in those families, making it more likely that they will struggle. And since the standard response is to create MORE penalties and STRICTER legal requirements, it becomes more and more difficult to escape the system once a person becomes trapped in it.

The machinery of poverty doesn’t just make people poor. It makes the entire community suffer.

So, yeah, if we make changes to reduce the number of people living in poverty, we alleviate a lot of community issues because many of the same factors underlie both.

I’ve said before that solving any problem requires two things: incentivize the right choices and behaviors at the same time as you penalize the wrong ones.

If you want to increase quality low-cost housing, you have to make it rewarding for developers and landlords to build and manage low-cost housing, not just penalize them for failing. If you want tenants to be more invested in their communities, you have to make it easy and tangibly rewarding to get involved (for instance, by making it more certain that complaints will be satisfactorily addressed, to start with), not just expect that poor neighborhood conditions will be penalty enough to drive action.

The fact of the matter is that poverty is a measure of the functionality of the systems on which our city is built. High rates of poverty in a community mean that a large portion of residents are unable to access necessary resources, either because there are too many barriers or too few resources. It doesn’t mean people in poverty aren’t making the right decisions – we’re all doing the best we can within the system that exists around us. It means those in charge of the system need to make serious changes in order to increase available resources and ease access to them.

And if we work to do that, we’ll also change the dynamics which give rise to so many other community problems.

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