Poverty, A Frustrating Mix Of Bad Choices And Bad Luck

Stories about poverty can evoke strong reactions, in part because Americans are conflicted about the topic. Both bad circumstances and bad choices can be the cause.

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NPR's Pam Fessler has been covering inequality around the country gathering stories from people struggling with poverty. And she's found that these stories prompt strong opinions and questions like who's at fault and what should be done about it.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Reporting about poverty can at times be frustrating. The problems seem so intractable - families stuck in a cycle of bad housing, bad health, bad education, bad jobs, a situation often made worse by bad decisions.

Kelly Wells is a caseworker at a nonprofit agency in Steuben County, N.Y. She told me she was sometimes exasperated with the choices made by her clients.

KELLY WELLS: That will have the latest cell phone that you can do almost everything but make cake with and their nails done. And then they'll say to me in the next breath, oh, I don't have any diapers. Do you have any diapers? Can you get me diapers?

FESSLER: She thinks a lot of it's about instant gratification, the need for people who are hard up to make themselves feel better. And then there are all those stories of poor, single women who have children again and again, sometimes with different men, who by the way, seldom seem to stick around.

TRACY BOGGS: I guess I made bad choices. You know, he made me a million promises he never kept.

FESSLER: Tracy Boggs is a mother of two I met in Reading, Pa. She knew she'd made mistakes, but she had also inadvertently hit hard times. The factory where she worked moved to China, and the job she was retrained to do - medical billing and coding - was outsourced. She was cleaning toilets instead trying to make ends meet.

BOGGS: Just keep praying.

FESSLER: And that's the flipside of covering poverty. For every story about someone doing something that makes you scratch your head, you see so many more people struggling against the odds, working long hours for low pay, sometimes doing incredible things.

Like Norma Moore, a woman I met in Eastern Kentucky. She lives in a small trailer home where she cares for her 8-year-old grandson. He's severely disabled. He squeals almost constantly as he rolls his body across the floor bumping into walls and doors.

NORMA MOORE: And there's nights, many nights that he cries, and he can't tell me what's hurting him. And I have to try a little everything. I have to try the ears, the nose, the eyes the stomach.

FESSLER: I was exhausted just watching her, but she said she felt blessed. Still, Americans are divided when it comes to poverty. Polls find that about half think people are poor due to circumstances beyond their control. But more than a third think it's their own fault. So it's no wonder these stories get responses from listeners that run the gamut.

The subject of one recent profile I did, the mother of three children by three different fathers, was called stupid and lazy and irresponsible in online comments. But there were other listeners who asked how can we help her. One even offered to give the woman a car so she could get to work.

David Hill, who runs ProAction, the nonprofit agency where Kelly Mills works, says he thinks that intolerance of the poor is growing.

DAVID HILL: If they're in poverty, there's something wrong with them. They probably got that way by choice. They're not trying hard enough. Every negative reason in the world is built for why they're in poverty.

FESSLER: But he says that's not what he sees every day on the front lines. Instead, he sees people living in poverty who are working extremely hard to get out. Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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