Poverty Is A Choice, They Say

We have been told our entire lives that if we work hard we can achieve anything. That's simply untrue.
03/10/2017 04:14 pm ET Updated Mar 13, 2017

Earlier this week, Jason (How-Does-He-Sleep-At-Night) Chaffetz suggested that with the new, World’s Greatest Healthcare Plan of 2017, people will have the incredible choice between buying a new iPhone and investing in their health. Isn’t that a great choice to have? Doesn’t matter that healthcare is a human right and that healthcare should be affordable and available to all. Nope! If you’re poor, stop wasting all of that money on materialistic goods and just buy some healthcare instead. Isn’t it so obvious? Also, stop eating that fancy food and using that fancy electricity (if you have it) and instead pay extra to those sweet and kind insurance companies.

But Chaffetz isn’t alone in his thinking, the belief that the underprivileged (read: poor) choose to be poor is around every corner, upheld by many.

I take issue with many commonly held beliefs, but this one is probably one that is most infuriating. These beliefs are passed on from generation to generation and while we become more progressive in our society, we somehow still refuse to listen to logic and reason and evidence. We stick to these commonplace, misguided, deep-rooted beliefs like they are our lifelines, like if we let go and listen to others we will somehow perish. The disdain we have for the poor is one of the most heartbreaking aspects of our society.

I am a middle-class white woman living in the suburbs. I don’t have many real struggles. But, my immigrant parents (born in the former Soviet Union where education was encouraged and mandated) worked multiple jobs while going to school and learning the English language, and they borrowed and saved in order to move into the suburbs and in order to send my brother and I to one of the best school districts in the state. This was my silver platter. I am privileged.

I don’t know what it’s like to try to make ends meet by having to work multiple low paying jobs, or what it’s like to raise a child without a spouse, or what it’s like to live in a community where hopelessness is rampant.

I don’t know what it’s like to attend a school with no supplies, where crime is prevalent, where teachers are hardly paid, where most children have not eaten in the morning or even the day(s) before.

I don’t know what it’s like to be born into a world where your toilet is an outhouse, where you stand in line at a soup kitchen, where you rely on charity for your basic needs.

I don’t know what it’s like to spend winters without heat, summers without air conditioning, every day without clean water.

I don’t know what it’s like to live to survive, to not know when my next meal will come, to make impossible decision every day.

I don’t know what it’s like to be poor. I am privileged.

And yet so many of us pretend we know. Can’t they just go get a job? Can’t they just work harder? Can’t they just go get a degree? Can’t they just save more? Spend less? These questions are ridiculous. They come from people who have never known any struggles. They come from people who never held multiple jobs just to put food on the table. These questions are from people who assume hard work is the answer to all problems. These questions are from people who were not born into poverty.

One of my favorite pieces of literature is Death of a Salesman. The story is about a man who spends his entire life chasing the American Dream, the notion that if one works hard, one will achieve all one wants. And yet, he just cannot get where he wants to be. He works hard. But life keeps eating away at his money. He can’t work hard enough, it seems, to pay off the mortgage, to support his family, to give money to his sons. He works hard, but his dreams are never attained. The myth of the American Dream is one we’ve been fed as children. But that myth is consumed only by those who have the means to work hard. The myth of the American Dream is only for those who have the privilege to believe in it; it’s not for those who need to figure out how to feed their children breakfast. Those people aren’t in a position to dream.

We have been told our entire lives (generation to generation) that if we work hard we can achieve whatever we wish. Yet someone forgot to add one detail to that adage: You must be born into a world of opportunity and choice. That world does not exist to all, only to some. And those born into the world of opportunity and choice cannot comprehend why anyone can’t just “pick themselves up by their bootstraps” and just “stop being poor.” Because it’s a choice, you see, to be poor.