03/13/2013 04:30 pm ET Updated May 13, 2013

Mistakes They Can't Afford to Make

Please stop reading if you have never:

  • Paid a late fee.
  • Bought a house that went down in value.
  • Lost the receipt for something you bought and been unable to return that item.

I see you're still with me. We all make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes cost us money. Many of us can afford a mistake or two. We pay the bank, the mechanic or the gas company and we move on.

Some people cannot afford to make mistakes. As a social worker working with people who are poor, I have been treated to many lectures on why my clients are responsible for their own circumstances because of the bad choices they've made. We all make bad choices, of course, but if we have the reserves to recover from them they do not follow us for so long.

This blame game is especially fierce against low-income moms. I'm in the business of getting clean, dry diapers to families who cannot afford them. Most people's reaction when they learn about diaper need is: I had no idea! How can I help?

But others assume that the mom (It's almost always Mom alone who gets singled out) should be managing her money better, working harder, using more ingenuity. Why don't they just use newspaper as a diaper? is a question I've gotten several times.

The majority of low-income mothers experience some form depression in their children's early years, as opposed to about 40 percent of all mothers, according to a two-year national study. Low-income moms are also more likely to experience major depression. Certainly, low-income moms have many struggles to face. Yet I cannot help but believe the overwhelming stigma and blame that surrounds them plays a role in that sad statistic.

It's reasonable to say that everyone's life is a patchwork of the things we've done and the things that were done to or for us. I find that relatively comfortable people rarely take the time to parse how much of their success comes directly from their own decisions and work. Why do we spend so much effort doing that moral accounting on poor people?

If we want to lift the one in five American children growing up in poor households, we must stop blaming their parents and instead make struggling families less vulnerable to mistakes and simple bad luck.

About 46.2 million Americans live in poverty. According to Feeding America, 50.1 million (including 16.7 million children) live in "food insecure" homes. That means they are one negative event away from being hungry: a parking ticket, a snowstorm that puts a parent out of work for a week, etc.

People working in the developing world used to talk about eradicating poverty. Increasingly, they talk about "creating prosperity." That's more than just spin. The idea is that you need to do economic development in a way that gives people more than a subsistence living. People with a secure income do the kinds of things that keep an economy going. They send their children to school. They take care of their own health. They may invest in machines or livestock that increase their earning power.

They are also less vulnerable to simple bad luck — a drought, an accident that puts them out of work for a month, and so on. If we want to ensure people don't sink into poverty again and again, there must be a path for them to achieve relative prosperity.

We understand that when we look at poverty abroad, but we are slow to understand it at home. That's a serious mistake.