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Poverty in Two Stories

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

There’s always a story to sanitize the poverty we don’t want to look at.

There’s the poor-but-honest story, the boots-straps version of life in America. It’s the you-can-become-anything version; all you have to do is try hard enough. The heroes of this story are either born to poverty or through some misfortune find themselves poor and alone. The heroic mother in this story sews by candlelight, scrubs the floors of the wealthy, sells her long hair for money for a Christmas gift, goes without meals so her children can eat – and sings cheerful songs while working... Pa, meanwhile is building the little house on the prairie, working two jobs, walking to both of them, and still making time for a pickup ball game with the kids. And through long hours of work and great personal sacrifice, never losing faith … this honest couple sends the next generation on the way to financial security. Cinderella finds her Prince Charming. Why would a politician want to disrupt this lovely chain of honest labor and great rewards – it’s already a success story. It’s the American Dream.

And the other story – you know, the version that would result if society chooses to help the needy – you’ve heard this one too: the welfare queen, those who refuse jobs because they get enough between welfare, tax credits and food assistance – so why work? The only reason people are poor, goes this fairy tale, is because they are lazy. A drag on the progress of the nation; the poor lack ambition and have been milking the government for generations.

Or, with no apparent notice of the contradiction, the story switches: They are immigrants and taking jobs away from the rest of us and are probably 'illegal' and should not be expecting the American taxpayer to support them. This story is the one the comfortable class loves to tell itself: It absolves them of all guilt or responsibility, it blames most social problems on these others: too lazy to work, prone to crime, addicted, and littering the sidewalks with their tents and blankets. This, too, is an American version of the wealth/poverty dichotomy in our land.

Congress, to avoid plunging the world into financial chaos, struggled for compromise to avoid default on the national debt. While at work on this very large problem, our leaders have not forgotten the plight of the poor. In fact, they have seen this plight as a bargaining chip. Doing so reduces the story of poverty to our favorite stereotype, and you can easily identify the political party by the story a politician chooses. If the poor are lazy and shiftless, then sharing our great wealth with them will simply make them even more lazy. Increase the work requirement! Or, the poor are already over-strained, over-stressed and working as hard as they can. Give them a hand up so they have the means to find opportunity for success. The basic needs of all Americans must be addressed. Surely, a society is successful when these needs are met, and we must do so.

Two stories. One compassionate, one cold and calculating. Republican politicians in Washington, with their comfortable salaries and privileged positions, insisted on raising the work requirements for seniors who need SNAP before they would approve the government spending bill. Because, you know, those older people are just lazy, right?

In a New York Times article, Eric Mitchell of the Alliance to End Hunger is quoted as saying, this 'will cause more older Americans to needlessly suffer from hunger and poverty. Those negotiations played politics with the real hunger of real people: not the storybook folks. In 2023, according to Today’s Homeowners, 582,462 persons are homeless; 60% find refuge in shelters, 40% often spend their nights and days on the street; more than a quarter of the homeless are part of families with children. Politicians who play on the fear of 'others,' who use people rather than helping them, who ignore citizens' needs – seek power, not governance.

Favorite stories end happily ever after. Except for the ones that don’t. Except for those suffering depression, anger, fear, mental illness, all the stresses of poverty; the ones who send their kids hungry to school.

Sharon Kourous is a retired teacher and member of Stronger Together Huddle, a group engaged in supporting and promoting the common good. She resides in Monroe and can be reached at

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