02/06/2014 11:24 am ET Updated Apr 08, 2014

Five Things I Learned By Listening to Americans in Need

Ever wonder why a low-income kid doesn't just study harder? Or why low-wage jobs are often hard to fill? How do families get stuck in poverty?

This past year, we've been asking low-income adults what's getting in they way as they strive to reach their goals. By simply listening, we've learned a lot about what Americans in need need to reach stability.

1 - Just getting and keeping the job is expensive

If there are jobs available, how can someone complain that there are none? We heard over and over that the simple costs of getting the tools, uniforms, bus fare and certifications to qualify for and make it through the first couple of months are huge barriers. Seems backwards, doesn't it, that a low-wage job requires people to spend hundreds of dollars just to arrive ready to work on the first day?

John, a veteran and a dad, was offered a job as a welder right after he completed training. To successfully complete his 90-day probationary employment period, though, he had to come up with over $500 for the specialized safety equipment and gear required of all welders. John was fortunate to get help with this huge expense, but many others have been thwarted by this sort of up-front requirement. Uniforms to work in food service, safety gear for technical work and certifications to qualify for jobs are just a few of the barriers we've seen come between striving, trained people and available jobs.

2 - Transportation to and from jobs and schools is a huge issue

Why would someone risk a hard-won job by showing up late? Bus fare, car repair, transit schedules and delays, kids in multiple schools, a sister to take to chemo -- we've seen it all.

Tasha did the right thing for her boys. She got them out of their abusive household and found safety in a shelter for abused women and children. What happened next was not unusual. The only shelter beds available to them were over an hour from Tasha's university job and her boys' school and preschool by public transit. Tasha's old car needed repair, leaving them at the mercy of a network of busses, trains and taxis to get to all three places each morning and back home again. When her boys were late for school or Tasha late for work as a result of train and bus delays, it put everything at risk. Only once she had the funds to fix her car, Tasha and her boys could move forward. Relying on pubic transit, leaving home early and planning ahead work much of the time, but when something goes awry, how patient will that employer be? How much school will a child miss?

3 - Working full time is often not enough

If people have jobs, why do they still need food stamps, energy subsidies, housing assistance or subsidized child care? Once you've got a job, why should you need help at all?

Kris works full time in Chicago, earning about $9.62 an hour, just under $20,000 a year. Kris is the sole breadwinner for herself and her high-school aged son. Using the Economic Policy Institute's (EPI) Family Budget Calculator, we determined that a family of one parent and one child in the Chicago area needs just over $50,000 a year to subsist. Even if Kris gets food stamps and subsidized health insurance and doesn't need child care, she still makes $7,000 per year under subsistence level. Kris turned to others for help when she wanted to simply provide her son a bed to sleep on.

4 - Kids need more than a roof over their heads to be ready to learn

Why don't low-income kids and parents focus on education? Some kids have computers at home, home-packed lunches, someone to pick them up if they stay late for school activities or extra help. Many kids don't.

Melissa stepped in when her mother went to prison. Even though Melissa and her husband had just had their own baby, they took in Melissa's sisters, 3 and 12 years old. The girls needed clothes, shoes and school supplies to get through that first school year. Melissa told us: "My sisters deserve to have what they need, but I can't provide everything for them." Imagine how hard it would be for that 12-year-old girl to lose her mom, move to a new home, then have to head off to school without clothes that fit or the supplies she needed. Housing instability is one of the many factors that undermine kids who need to focus on learning.

5 - If we want things to change, we need to listen

If, as a country, we want people to reach self-sufficiency, then instead of villainizing low-income families, we can start by listening to and believing in our neighbors. When we listen to Americans who are striving to bring their families out of poverty, we learn about gaps in our policies, approaches and systems.

How would we re-structure supports and employment practices to make it possible for low-income Americans to set their goals, get help overcoming hurdles, and know that people believed in them? Let's start that conversation and stop the vitriol that has marked recent conversations about poverty and progress.