Once Financially Secure, a Mother Is Fighting a Life of Poverty

A former airline worker finds herself in a cycle of poverty from which there is little chance of escape.

Josephine Wiles Warner and two of her four children Leila McDowell

Josephine Wiles Warner’s cozy town house in Herndon, Va., is filled with the laughter of her four children—children she brought into her home when their natural parents could no longer care for them. And Warner became their mom, but not through foster care, so she receives no aid.

Now the lights and water are off and she is being threatened with eviction. The cold caused the children to get bronchitis and pneumonia.

“It’s a nightmare,” Warner says.

Warner is one of millions of people who discovered that it often costs more to be poor than rich.

She used to own the townhome. For 20 years she worked as an airline customer-service agent but left to care for her terminally ill mother in 2010. “I had no idea that it would mean a spiral into poverty,” Warner says. Even with three college degrees, she is unable to find work in her field.

To pay mounting bills, she refinanced the home but soon learned that she was the victim of predatory lending, which, according to studies, affects African Americans at more than twice the rate of whites. The mortgage company said that if she paid $10,000 it would not foreclose, but two days after she gave the firm the money, the house was sold. Fortunately, the new owner let her rent back the home.

Like many other low-income Americans, Warner turned to high-interest loans after her part-time job and taking in boarders wasn’t enough. Within five months, a $1,500 loan had doubled to $3,000. According to the Center for Responsible Lending (pdf), these loans carry interest rates as high as 400 percent that keep the poor locked in a never-ending cycle of debt. 

People living in poverty pay higher prices for food, financial services and other needs. Only 8 percent of African Americans live in a census track with a supermarket, which leaves only mom-and-pop stores, with higher prices and fewer healthy food choices. Poor diet exacerbates health issues (pdf) and creates higher medical costs, which in turn causes more debt. 

For years the poor have been bearing the brunt of the budget debates on Capitol Hill. Since President Obama’s re-election, Republicans have pushed through severe cuts in social programs, particularly through the sequester that mandated across-the-board cuts in federal programs. During that time, Democrats proffered public investments to create immediate jobs and preserve safety net investments, but the fight for those proposals was anemic at best.