The Poverty Trap

A lot of the things that happen on my Twitter feed concern me not at all. It’s a broad but not particularly deep stream of information.  I dip my fingers in every so often; I pour some things in every so often.  But then again, every so often I find a piece of information that I know has circled to my mind from the deep Ocean of truth out there somewhere.  And I wonder how to communicate this to my students.

Pieces of information like this nugget: If you make less than $40,000 a year, you’re stuck in a kind of poverty if you live in the United States.

A graph of the Poverty Trap

Here’s the thing… If you and your family of three earn less than $20,000 a year here, you get assistance from the Federal government and from the states, because you are — you know — poor.

But after you earn more than $20,000 a year, those subsidies in the form of food stamps and housing assistance start to go away; and frequently those sorts of businesses have substantial side-costs: transit, perhaps clothes or uniforms.  And the subsidies that made life possible beforehand go away, too:  You lose access to subsidized health care, and child care.  Your rent support vanishes.  And so your expenses jump, to eat most of the extra that you may have earned… up to about $20,000 more above $20,000.  Or $40,000 a year, which works out to $19 or $20 an hour.

I don’t make $20 an hour.  Am I in poverty?  Well, no. But I certainly have subsidized housing, in the form of an apartment in one of the school dormitories.  I eat subsidized food in the school dining hall.  And while I DO pay my own health care costs, the’ve climbed (reliably) in unpredictable ways for years now.

Should we teach this in schools? How? When?  And more importantly, how do we as a nation fix this problem?

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