Is That Stuff Contagious?

First, the good news:  You can’t “catch” poverty. There are some lifestyle choices you can make that put you at higher-risk for becoming poor, but for most people, poverty is a congenital condition.  An inherited one.

Mama and Daddy are poor?  Congratulations, you and your children have an excellent chance of being poor as well.  You’ve lost the genetic lottery.

As we talked about a week ago in this space, poverty is on the move in the United States.  Ever since we gave up on the War on Poverty in favor of more broadcast-friendly “wars” (drugs, terror), poverty is spreading like kudzu.  Or perhaps more like malaria.

Poverty is the sort of thing you pass on to future generations.  No matter what economic level you’re born into, if you slip into that lower rung – the one nobody wants to talk about – your kids are likely to spend some time poor, too.

According to this piece published by the Urban Institute in 2010, half (ok, 49% – poetic license) of all children born into poverty will continue to live poor for at least half of their young lives (up to 18).  By contrast, a child who is not born to a family below the poverty line has only about a 25% chance of living any years of her youth in poverty.  And, according to the researchers (who tracked families through a University of Michigan study for 40 years), one out of five kids born poor will continue to spend time in their late 20’s poor.

So.  We’ve established that the best way to get poor is to catch it from your parents.  Note that I’m not judging here.  The “why” of that family poverty connection is a topic for another day.  Right now I’m just trying to figure out how one catches this condition.

But you can “catch” poverty, following our metaphor, by “catching” a real disease.  It’s more and more common in the U.S.  Medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy here, according to the American Journal of Medicine.  That’s a heck of a latrogenic artifact, huh?

No, bankruptcy is not a guaranteed trip to Poverty Lane. But it’s hardly a stretch to say the two live close to each other.

Of course, one of the best ways to catch financial distress is to, well, get old.   NBC News tells us that fifteen percent of American seniors live below the poverty line.  That probably doesn’t leap out and grab you.  How about this:  Without Social Security the poverty rate among Americans 65 or older would be 54%. Fifty-Four percent.

Those are just a few of the ways to end up poor.  There are plenty more.  Twenty-eight percent of Americans have no emergency savings.  When one of those people lose their job, they’re going to start feeling poor very soon. You could develop an addiction.  You could get a divorce.  All those are tried-and-true ways to catch the poverty bug.

No, clearly poverty is not contagious.  But being poor, for most people, is not the result of poor life decisions any more than catching the flu is the result of aberrant behavior.

I wanted to take this space this week to make it clear that poverty just … is … for a lot of Americans.  Many more are always hovering at the poverty line, and more are crossing it these days than in a long time.  But it’s (generally) not anyone’s fault they’re poor.

Next week we’ll talk about some things we (and by “we” I mean “We the People”, using our collective governmental force) can do about poverty, and why we should.


In addition to writing here at Everblog, Harvey Ward writes about his efforts to live healthier and better at SkippingDessert.Com.  You can also find him on Twitter @hlward.

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6 thoughts on “Is That Stuff Contagious?

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