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

During the latest budget battle, which resulted in the bipartisan compromise crafted by Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Democrats agreed to leave out extended unemployment benefits and adopted a budget close to what Republicans initially asked for. Adjusting for inflation, the $1.1 trillion budget gives the Obama administration $53 billion less to spend then President George W. Bush had.

Many economists predict that with the jobless nature of the recovery, the doors that traditionally have led families out of poverty have closed.

“The economic escalator of the 1950s and 1960s that saw wages rising for most Americans is in the down position,” says Howard University economist William Spriggs. “Unionization rates are down, a disproportionate share of black workers are in unions. The value of the minimum wage has fallen, which greatly affects workers in the lower third of the wage distribution, and black workers—especially black women—are heavily affected by declines in the real value of the minimum wage.”

There were 1.6 million more children living in poverty in 2012 than in 1996, yet Temporary Assistance for Needy Families was reduced by more than 30 percent. Almost 50 million Americans are food insecure, yet food stamps were dramatically cut. Investments in job and educational training have also shrunk, leaving people like Nevel Butler—a Washington, D.C., mother of six—despondent.

“I’m afraid we’ll be homeless again. We’ve gotten frostbite from sleeping in the streets, in cars, on a porch,” she says. “I’ve been on the waiting list for permanent housing for 13 years.”

The funds for her GED classes were cut. “Without a job, how am I going to be able to pay for a GED?  Without my GED, how am I going to get a job?” she says. “I’ve tried everything, even McDonald’s.”

Her food stamps have been reduced to $358 a month. “At the end of the month, the cupboards are empty,” Butler says.  

Robert Reich, former secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton, advocates raising the minimum wage and boosting public spending on education and infrastructure to reduce poverty. But those policies don’t tackle racism, often cited as a key cause of black unemployment rates that are perennially twice those of whites.

Poverty gnaws at the fabric of any society and its intrinsic humanity. It can foster social unrest as more people become disenfranchised from economic viability. Americans have to ask themselves what kind of society they want—one that embraces Darwin’s precept that only the powerful thrive or one that believes in serving a common good.

Leila McDowell is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter.