Who Decides: Unseen Forces vs. Personal Choices in a Life of Poverty


{Ed. Note: This is a guest post from Barbara Munoz. Barbara is the Policy Analyst for Community Action Partnership of Utah and works to understand the needs of all our local communities to determine policy-based solutions to alleviate poverty in our state. Barbara holds a Master of Public Policy from the University of Utah where she also received her bachelor’s degree in communication.}

When it comes to poverty, how is it that some people overcome incredible odds and pull themselves up by those proverbial “bootstraps,” while others appear trapped in poverty’s vicious quicksand? While we cannot discount personal responsibility, we also cannot look at people in poverty in a vacuum and pretend that nothing but their choices put and keep them there.

So what I want to share with you is the first time I truly grasped that my family was poor.

Are we really that poor?

It was Christmas 1988 and I was thirteen. A swirling ball of hormones and attitude, my Christmas “wish list” was filled with items like knee-length sweaters, acid-washed jeans, cassette tapes, nail polish, and neon-colored plastic jewelry.


Not me nor my wardrobe. But close enough.

I was blessed with Christmases up until that point that brought many of the items I requested of Santa. Christmas morning in ’88 I awoke to the usual pile of promising-looking packages under our increasingly spindly tree. I opened the first box, the shape of which indicated an article of clothing. Hoping for one of those sweaters I requested, I carefully parted the tissue paper to find a mustard yellow – clearly previously worn – polo shirt. This had to be a mistake. “Is this used?” I asked my mother in disbelief. She tried to mask her horror, but her face betrayed her. I knew she was just as surprised as I was. She told me to open another box, hoping it would redeem the vomit-colored polo. The second box held more heartbreak in the form of a pair of jeans, worn at the pockets. Not in a way that was done by a machine on purpose. At this point, the tears welling up in my eyes turned to sobs as I looked to my mother for an explanation.

“Are we THAT broke?” I managed to squeak out.

“Let’s go talk,” she said calmly as she led me to her bedroom.

We sat on the edge of the bed and she wrapped her arm around my shoulders. She took a deep breath and started to explain.

But before I get to that, let me back up a little.

Shortly after I was born, my dad started to experience vague and troubling symptoms such as dizziness and an occasional loss of balance. As his symptoms became progressively more severe, doctors finally determined he was suffering from a form of Multiple Sclerosis known as Primary Progressive or PPMS–a condition affecting about 10 percent of people with MS where the symptoms get progressively worse without periods of remission and relapse. In the 1970s there were not the treatment options there are today, so his prognosis wasn’t promising. I remember my mom telling me that his neurologist said, “Be glad there is television,” because eventually that would be the only thing my dad would be capable of doing.

Before getting married, my mother was a registered nurse with her bachelor’s degree from the University of Wyoming. After marrying my father and starting to raise a family as a stay-at-home mom, I imagine at the time, my mother thought she would never have to go back to work as a nurse again.

But by 1978 she was faced with a choice: place her declining 46-year-old husband in a nursing home and go back to work, or use the skills she acquired as a nurse and care for him at home. Having served in the Korean War, my father was receiving Veteran’s benefits and Social Security which provided him with health care and our family with income. The progression of my father’s symptoms eventually led to paralysis which left him with bed-ridden with a feeding tube and a catheter. Ultimately, her choice was to care for him and her children at home.

I know my mother could not have been more grateful for the safety nets in place in the form of income, health care for my father, and USDA food products. I remember our pantry stocked with gallon tubs of white and black labeled peanut butter, boxes of powdered milk, and cans of chipped beef. It wasn’t until I was nine or ten when I realized cheese came in forms other than a four pound orange block– referred to affectionately as “government cheese.” For the most part, my mom tried to keep grown-up problems to herself, but some of them were too obvious to hide.

On that Christmas morning in 1988, she was completely honest with me. She explained that for many years we had been receiving help with the holidays through a program run by the MS Society of Utah. For many years a very kind family “adopted us” and purchased Christmas presents for the family. But as all good things must come to an end, this lovely family moved out-of-state and was no longer participating in the program. That Christmas in ’88, our family matched with a group of high school students who were participating in a service project. My mom explained that the students really had no idea what our circumstances were – just our ages and genders – and were just trying to provide a nice Christmas for us on limited funds.

In retrospect I grateful to that well-intentioned group of high school students and I am especially blown away by the generosity of the family who provided some very happy memories and great toys to encourage use of my imagination for so many years. While I am sure my mother thanked them profusely, I wish I could tell them how grateful I am even now – more so now – that they heaped such kindness upon our family.

The forces working against my family were many: a debilitating long-term illness, lack of health care for my mother and my siblings, and an administration and Congress who cut Social Security benefits at the time we needed them the most.

Structures that maintain poverty

So let’s look at some of those forces working against us in the context of poverty data for the state of Utah. 

My father had a severe chronic disability which prevented him from working

While being differently-abled doesn’t guarantee a life of poverty, it certainly increases the chances. In Utah 20.9% of people between the ages of 18 to 64 are living in poverty, compared to 11.7% in the general population.

My family did not have health insurance (with the exception of my father)

Despite our low-income, my family did not qualify for Medicaid due to the amount of money we received from Social Security. CHIP would have likely covered me and my siblings, but it did not exist until the late 1990s. Fortunately my siblings and I were relatively healthy and my mom’s training as a nurse helped her determine if a trip to the doctor was necessary, but I know she clutched her purse every time one of us sneezed. Health care for low-income individuals and families has been forefront in the headlines since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as “Obamacare.” Utah leaders have been debating exactly how to cover the people who are simultaneously ineligible for Medicaid, unable to afford private health insurance, and also not eligible for tax subsidies. This is often referred to as the “Donut Hole” or “Coverage Gap.”

In Utah, 12.5% of our population goes without health insurance. The rate of uninsured has gone down with the passage of the Affordable Care Act but we still have nearly 280,000 Utahns without health coverage, and 85,000 of the uninsured are children. Each day we go without a decision about how to insure low-income Utahns is another day we have failed our vulnerable populations.

I lived in a female-headed household

For all intents and purposes, my mother was a single parent. And when my father passed away in 1987, she knew she needed to act quickly to renew her nursing license and go back to work before disability benefits expired. Again, she was incredibly lucky to have the education and the skills to go back to a job that paid relatively well. For many single mothers in Utah, the poverty figures are sobering. 36.9%  of single mothers with children under eighteen live  in poverty. For mothers with children under five, a staggering 49% live in poverty.

Privileges that reduce poverty

I’ve highlighted some of the forces working against my family and keeping us in poverty, but I want to talk about some of the privileges that helped me escape. Because when it comes to poverty, structural inequality is really the deciding factor of who gets out.

My parents received formal higher education

My mother held a bachelor’s degree and my father obtained his master’s in education. Even exhausted and distracted, my mother corrected my grammar while packing my lunch with generic peanut butter and day-old-bread sandwiches. She read to me nearly every night. Despite her absolute hatred of math, she struggled through fractions with me at the dinner table. It never even occurred to me I might do something other than go straight to college after high school. It was just expected. In Utah, of those without a high school diploma or equivalency, approximately 20% are in poverty. The rate drops by almost half for people with a high school diploma or GED. The poverty rate continues to drop for those with some college or an associate degree.

We had a stable living space

Things were difficult, but we never moved. I always knew where home was and that there were people in it that would feed and care for me. Housing that is safe, affordable, and located near work, school, food, and medical care is scarce among those in poverty. The average rent in Utah for a two-bedroom apartment is $813 per month. For a person working at a minimum wage job, they would have to work 86 hours per week to afford that rent (spending 30% of their income on housing expenses) and have money left for other expenses such as food and clothing. 47% of Utahns cannot afford their rent and spend more than 30% of their income on housing.

We are white

I regret to admit, despite taking several courses in college focused on diversity, and fancying myself as an educated and well-read person – I believe it is only in the past few years that I have come to acknowledge what a difference this fact – this seemingly benign aspect of who I am – has likely played a critical role in the outcomes of my life. I’ve also come to realize that I can no longer remain quiet about this fact. Because as a benefactor of genetic luck-of-the-draw, I need to start examining exactly how this awareness needs to lead to more education and action on my part. I don’t know what that looks like yet, but it’s a work in progress. I feel like I need to acknowledge that my mother might not have gotten the help that she did if she was a woman of color.

The rate of poverty in Utah for white individuals who are not Hispanic or Latino is 9%. For those who are Hispanic or Latino, the poverty rate is 23.6%. For Utahns who are Black or African-American, the poverty rate is 22.7%, and the poverty rate for American Indian or Alaska Native is 33.3%. To say there is a disparity in economic circumstances based on ethnic origin and race is an understatement.

Moving forward

So here I am writing about my life of poverty and some of the troubling data about poverty in Utah. But maybe you might think – “Well, she turned out okay, a little long-winded, but okay.” And you’d be right. I have a master’s degree in public policy, a good job, a fantastic husband, and a Labrador mix who greets me when I walk into my affordable home in good repair. And, yes, a good deal of my success is a result of hard work, but a lot of it isn’t.

As those of us working to eradicate poverty, we are working to provide people opportunity. We provide, or at least try to, the kind of support some people have rarely, or maybe never, experienced. As we keep building capacity, we can’t lose our empathy and our understanding of this narrative of personal choice, and the unseen forces working both for and against people we serve.

But our empathy can also translate into action. Of course, volunteering for and donating to those in need is something we can all do to improve our communities. But we also need to look for opportunities to change the structures that keep people impoverished. For example, Utah continues to debate whether to provide health care to approximately 70,000 Utahns in poverty. I encourage you to help change the system keeping thousands of our brothers, sisters, neighbors, friends, and parents from getting desperately needed health care. Please call or email your legislator (if you don’t know who they are, you can find out here and encourage them to vote to provide health care to those who fall into a “coverage gap.” You can learn more about the ongoing debate from the Utah Health Policy Project.

For 50 years we have been waging the War on Poverty in America, established by Lindon Johnson in 1964. While the “war” has not been won, it is still worth fighting.

*Poverty data is from the U.S. Census, American Community Survey 1-year Estimates 2014 and the National Low Income Housing Coalition Out of Reach Report 2015.

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