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Judith Sandalow Headshot

Which Son Needs Money More? The Decisions of a Low-Income Working Mother

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Last week the journal Science published findings on poverty and brain function. The short version from news headlines is that poverty causes people to make bad decisions. But the more nuanced version from the study itself is that it takes so much cognitive effort to solve the endless problems created by having inadequate resources that poor people are more likely to make bad decisions that keep them poor. If this is true, then the many Children's Law Center clients who make good decisions deserve our utmost respect. Ms. P is one such client.

I spoke with Ms. P this spring just after she learned that her oldest son "Derek" won a scholarship to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I initially met Ms. P when one of our lawyers helped her secure special education and health care services for her younger son, "Michael," who has autism and very debilitating chronic health concerns. Ms. P left her full-time job for a part-time one in order to care for him. I talked with Ms. P about how she managed financially and what the scholarship meant to her family.

Just the week before we met, Ms. P took Michael to an appointment at Children's National Medical Center. Michael had been wheezing, and the doctor had prescribed medication to help his compromised immune system. The co-pay at the pharmacy was $54. Michael needed the medicine - but Derek also needed $50 for senior class dues in order to graduate. After groceries and other bills, Ms. P couldn't cover both expenses from the same paycheck. She called her insurance company to negotiate a smaller co-pay, but it was Friday evening and she was unable to reach anyone. There was also no one at Derek's school to ask for an extension on the fees. So, after agonizing about the decision - which son's needs to prioritize? - she took the gamble that Derek's payment could be a week late and filled Michael's prescription.

Much of the rhetoric around budget cuts suggests that lawmakers make tough decisions, but to me Ms. P's decision about how to spend her last $50 is one of the toughest I can imagine. The more Ms. P talked, the more I learned about how her life is filled with careful calculations like this.

There is a new Giant a half-mile from her house, but she told me she only shops there occasionally because it's too expensive for regular groceries. It is cheaper for her to take Metro to Costco or BJ's Wholesale. Transportation is an ongoing headache. She often walks to work to save on bus fare, but can't walk home after dark because it is too dangerous. Getting to Michael's early morning doctors' appointments every Friday is particularly hard. One day, she paid a neighbor to get her to Children's National for Michael's first appointment at 7 a.m. She was stuck at the hospital until her sister finished with work and gave her a ride home - after 6 p.m. Ms. P had packed a lunch and snack for Michael, but had run out of time to pack something for herself, and the hospital cafeteria was out of the question - too expensive.

Ms. P has hovered near the poverty line throughout her working career, making decisions like these to stretch her paycheck and trying to do the best for her children her entire life. In fact, she's helped other children as well, working first as a teacher's aide and now with an afterschool mentoring program. She invests in the education of other people's children, yet her own son's educational future is only possible because of the scholarship he earned.

I can't imagine having to choose between medicine for one son or high school graduation for another. To be confronted by decisions like this every day - or even several times a month - must be truly exhausting and mentally taxing, as the recent research suggests. But Ms. P is amazingly adept at making these tough decisions. Few of us are, consistently, quite so wise, yet we ask poor families to make these hard decisions daily and then judge them harshly when they make decisions we deem inappropriate. Aren't we holding poor people to a standard that most of us can't meet?