Meet the Working Poor: Learning not to Judge

Posted by Dr. C.J. Huff on December 3, 2016
Meet the working poor - Learning not to judge

From a US Bureau of Labor Statistics perspective, the working poor are defined as “…people who spent at least 27 weeks in the labor force (that is, working or looking for work) but whose incomes still fell below the official poverty level.”

1. For a family of four, the official poverty level reflects an annual income of less than $24,300.

2. Passing judgment on families living in poverty without understanding the circumstances is a modern flaw of both society and public policy. Consequently, there is a myriad of pervasive opinions about families living below the poverty line ranging from the obscure to the absurd. The following Washington Post article flushes out some of these misperceptions: The Double Standard of Making Poor People Prove They're Worthy of Government Benefits

Let’s run through a quick scenario to make an important point about the working poor.

Pretend, for a second, you are a classroom teacher in a high poverty school. Three brothers attend your school and come to class daily with hygiene issues that became so pervasive that it disrupts the learning environment. What assumptions would you make? Now, a little more information. These boys' parents would be classified as working poor by the aforementioned definition. Does that change your thinking? Let’s continue. Dad was fully employed, but his place of employment had to lay him off due to reasons beyond his control. How about now? In the meantime, this family’s hot water heater broke down and needed to be replaced. However, the meager budget they now had to live on forced them to prioritize their budget. The issue at hand for this family…hot water or food? You are the teacher. What would you do? Ignore it? Ask the principal to “hotline” the family for neglect? Isolate the kids in the classroom so as to not disrupt others? Of course not.

If this scenario would have only been one sentence about three brothers that smelled bad, your reaction may have been different. How would you have reacted without knowing the other details? Why is this an important point? Uninformed people are quick to judge, informed people become empathetic to the situation. More importantly, when good people who fully understand the situation and where resources exist to solve a particular problem they are driven to take action.

One of the most rewarding experiences of my life has been my work with Bright Futures USA. The scenario above is played out in real life in one of our Bright Futures communities. The happy ending to this story looked like this. The teacher was alert. She knew the kids and family. The boys’ hygiene issue did not line up with her personal experiences with the parents. Instead of requesting that social services get involved, she brought the issue to the counselor. The counselor reached out to the parents and learned the reasons behind the hygiene issue. Without identifying the family by name, an all-call was put out into the community through the Bright Futures support network. In 24 hours a local supply company donated a new hot water heater, a local plumber volunteered to do the installation. The unemployed dad helped the plumber with the installation. The plumber was impressed with his work ethic, skills, and attitude. The plumber offered dad a job and the family had hot water again. Problem solved.

We are all guilty of passing judgment from time to time. Frankly, it’s easier to judge than it is to become informed. My question to you is this…what could society and public policy look like if you and I choose to truly "love thy neighbor" - instead of judging them?

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/working-poor/2014/pdf/home.pdf
2. US Department of Health and Human Services: https://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty-guidelines

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Topics: Breaking the Poverty Cycle, Meaningful Leadership