When I had so little money I didn’t know how I would buy gas to get my daughter to school, people offered many wonderful ideas intended to help me. The Seventh Day Adventist food pantry has free food available on Thursday mornings. Many hospitals, like Southern Maine Health Care, offer free care for those who qualify. Hour Exchange Portland could help with transportation, house cleaning or a seemingly endless range of services that would most certainly help make my life more manageable.
There are many ways to survive poverty. There are resources available through the government, of course — fuel assistance, food stamps, health insurance, financial assistance. Social service agencies like York County Community Action offer essential support in many areas, including transportation and health care. Preble Street runs a food pantry and offers casework services for referrals to assistance programs, among other things.
When it was at its worst, though, my financial crisis made it impossible for me to sort through the possibilities for help. Even if all the support and help I needed was available, I didn’t have the capacity to identify or organize accessing the resources.
In the book “ Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much,” authors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir called upon studies of behavioral science, including brain scans, as well as studies of economics to explore how scarcity affects our brains. As I wrote about in January last year, poverty changed how my mind worked. Mullainathan and Eldar show how Gov. Paul LePage’s assertion that people in poverty should “ make a good-faith effort to get a job first” before applying for government assistance barely skims the surface of eradicating poverty.
Success in a job search, or participation in a training program to improve skills to get a better job, requires that an individual’s brain must have the capacity to manage a whole host of details. The complex time and resource management required for job searching and education are beyond what is possible for someone in a true financial crisis.
“Being poor uses up ‘bandwidth,’ and has more impact than going a full night without sleep,” report Mullainathan and Eldar. Think about that. Imagine going without sleep for a full night. Now imagine every day feeling as if you’ve had no sleep at all. That dazed state is a daily reality for many people living in poverty. Otherwise competent, responsible and hard-working people lose the ability to manage their lives.
Consider participation in a computer skills class to strengthen an individual’s employability. It’s not as simple as attending a class, learning and using those skills to get a new job. A class requires knowing what day it is — believe me, when my financial and emotional crisis was at its worst, I wasn’t always sure what day it was. Issues such as child care and transportation must be arranged. Will there be homework? Completing homework means the learner needs to remember to get it done, needs access to a computer, and likely needs child care for the time to study.
Most people know well the feeling of being overwhelmed with “too much to do.” Imagine what it would be like to have an assistant during those times — like a corporate executive who’s able to say, “Return that call, set up that appointment, remind me to sign those papers.” Feel that relief?
People in financial crisis should be assigned a personal assistant for long enough to make significant changes in their stability, perhaps six months or a year (or more). That assistant’s job would be to help with the tasks of daily living. Calling the grandmother to arrange child care, keeping a grocery list, returning calls to the doctor, managing the calendar, keeping track of deadline-driven paperwork such as car registration renewals or Department of Health and Human Services recertifications.
Rather than compounding problems by insisting people “search for jobs” when they can barely remember what day it is, provide some space in their brains to develop the focus required for a successful job search.
People may argue it’s “not fair” to suggest poor people have such help, as it seems a luxury most of us wouldn’t even dream of. However, if the real concern of lawmakers opposed to increasing funds in support of social services is that the programs encourage laziness, fraud and dependence, there is a way to break the cycle.
Education and jobs together are a horse that can drive an individual out of poverty. As true as that may be, we need to be sure the cart — an individual’s life — is functioning properly before we try dragging it anywhere.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her columns appear monthly.