My friend Tonya, a woman in her late thirties who has lived in poverty for decades, called me today. “I feel like a sponge,” she said. “Everyone’s problems trickle down onto me and I absorb them all.”
Tonya was referring to the term “trickle-down economics.” While she didn’t have the exact definition of trickle-down economic theory in mind (trickle-down economics is the idea that tax breaks and other economic benefits provided to businesses and upper income levels “trickle down” to benefit all members of society), she clearly understood that trickle-down economic policies have not worked for her over the decades in which the gap between rich and poor has widened dramatically.
Trickle-down prosperity is at best “voodoo economics” and at worst a cruel trick played on the majority of the American people. But trickle-down poverty is all-too-true at the level of families and households. Eighty percent of Americans do not have sufficient savings to weather a two month loss of income. For these millions of people, an illness or job loss affecting one member of a household trickles down and out to networks of friends and family shouldering the responsibility to help pay for basic housing and subsistence food.
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Poverty also trickles down from generation to generation. Children who experience poverty are more likely than other children to grow up to be poor. Tonya is already keenly aware of this fact. As a young mother, she could not afford housing. She and her daughter lived in shelters, parks, friends’ living rooms, and – for a time – in the stairwells of local universities. Tonya eventually lost custody of her daughter on the grounds of not providing a safe environment for her. Her daughter did not thrive in the years she lived with relatives, a foster family and in institutional settings. Now in her early twenties, she does not have a high school diploma, struggles with reading and writing, and has never held a job. She does, however, have a baby. And just like when she herself was a young child, she is dependent upon other people offering her a place to stay.
Everyone –extended family and social workers alike – expects that Tonya will take the grandbaby. But Tonya, who finally has a stable place to live, is raising a young son of her own and barely scraping by on a few hundred dollars a month of welfare payments. (Full disclosure: I have known her son since the day he was born and can vouch for Tonya’s dedicated parenting and for her son’s unbelievable cuteness!) For a variety of reasons – lack of education, health challenges, bias against out-spoken Black women – she has not been able to keep a steady job. Most recently she was hired to work at a local supermarket for wages that she describes as “high school kid wages” but was fired after a few weeks when she had to call in sick with a throat infection, despite showing her boss a note from her doctor attesting to her infectious health status.
For the past six months Tonya has been stretching her welfare check to help support her daughter, grandchild and a brother who has mental health problems as well as a criminal record that essentially makes him unemployable. She is terrified that the expenses of taking on another person will take away resources that her son needs. There are days when she does not have the money for bus fare so she cannot take her son to school – a sort of trickle-down educational deficit issue that gravely worries her. She also is behind in her rent and in danger of losing her housing, which would likely mean that her son would be taken from her.
I asked her, “Can’t anyone help you out? Can your mother help? Your son’s father?” “No one has any money,” she replied. “We’re all in the same boat. And I’m the one who’s been keeping it going for everyone but there are days when my head is bobbing up and down to get air. I’m near the snapping point; my hair is falling out and I am having nightmares every night. I don’t know why I can’t get ahead. I can’t even catch up. I see people who have the life I want – a job and a house. There’s something wrong with me that I can’t have those things.”
“Tonya,” I told her. “There’s nothing wrong with you that a good dose of fair and rational economic policies wouldn’t cure.”