When you think of someone living in poverty what comes to mind? The word “lazy” maybe? Perhaps “lack of morals” is a phrase you think of? Even the term “irresponsible” may come into play? This is the stereotype faced by a massive part of the United States’ population that lives at or below the “poverty line.” This state, also known as the federal poverty level is a level of income based on the state of residence and the weighted average of cost of living. Determining at what point income dips below the state’s cost of living is the criteria used to determine eligibility for helpful programs.
What if the issue of systemic poverty stems from those who profit off of these individual’s struggles rather than inadequacies on the part of the poor?
For example, Tobin Charney (a landlord in Milwaukee, Wisconsin) makes almost half a million dollars a year from his trailer park rentals. He owns and rents out 131 different trailers, all ill-maintained, and profits to the tune of $400,000 a year — all on the backs of poverty-stricken tenants that can barely afford the rent.
The standard scale used by economists is that rent should be no more than 25-30 percent of total income. For those that live below the poverty line, that chunk of cash can be as much as 60-70 percent of their income.
A story about a man named Lamar living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin diagrams this perfectly. Lamar recalls his tale: When he pays his landlord $550 out of his welfare check, he only has enough left for $2.19 a day.
Lamar is the father of two that lost his legs to frostbite when he passed out in a drug den.
When that is mentioned, does your opinion of him change? Do you still see the struggling father, or has that picture been replaced by that of the former drug addict?
What race is he to you now?
While you sort out your own personal biases, Lamar’s story continues: When the welfare agency realized there was an error on his check, he was made to pay back the difference. He began selling his food stamps back for half of their face value and volunteered to paint an upstairs apartment to cover what he was not able to pay in rent that month.
But, because Lamar is living in debt to his landlord for a mistake the welfare office made, his landlord can now evict him at a moment’s notice — because that is how the laws are written. And it has been known to happen the second a tenant begins asking for repairs to their trailers and apartments, or at that point when they are deemed to be more of a problem than a meal ticket.
If a better tenant comes along asking for a room, these “nuisance tenants” can then be evicted for the lack of rent payment, even though the landlord has waited three or four months after the incident and the rent has since been brought up to a current status.
There are no laws in place to discourage something like this from happening.
Not just that, but even a steadily-paying tenant can lose their home if the police are called for any reason. It is called the nuisance abatement law (or property nuisance ordinances) and it has been skewed to include even the basic calling of law enforcement to a home.
Even if someone is beating on someone else.
But, the cycle is even worse for women, because they are still fighting wage issues within the workplace and often have the added burden of being a single mother. Finding a landlord to rent a place to a family with a working single mom is scarce.
Surprisingly, a huge deterrent to renting to families, and especially single mothers, is the chance of more property damage caused by children.
Between facing issues with landlords who make hundreds of thousands of dollars in profit every year and because of the ever-present possibility of eviction, people living in poverty are likely to remain there. Any meager savings they manage gets put into other areas of necessity. Battered women stay silent about their pain and struggles and keep their children in those situations because they fear eviction.
To them, a battered home is better than no home.
To them, no savings is better than no home.
Are they “lazy,” or are they preyed upon?
With a land so rich in money, energy, and resources, why is there so much pain and poverty?
Maybe if we began regarding them as “victims” instead of “perpetrators of a particular lifestyle,” maybe the problem could be solved. It is time to change the conversation.
Watch below to see Matthew Desmond talk about this exact issue.
Featured image courtesy of Unearthed Ohio. If you have some time, peruse this blog. The photos and descriptive passages of the author’s travel are fascinating. Kudos to a well put-together photo journey.