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In a letter to the Monitor on Dec. 1, Don Willerton requested more information about who the poor in Los Alamos are. It is easier to answer his question by discussing who the poor are not. “The poor” are not victims of their own personal choices. Poverty, despite the myths we tell ourselves so we can try to sleep better at night, is not a punishment for personal failures and bad life choices. It is neither the result of laziness, nor of the lack of motivation or responsibility. Poverty is the symptom of larger systemic, societal ills – not the least of which are the rising cost of living, and a labor market that continues to produce more part-time and sub-poverty level jobs than decent, living-wage jobs. The current state minimum wage barely pulls a single person above the poverty line. It doesn’t even come close to pulling a family out of poverty. There are such jobs available in Los Alamos County.
“The poor” are not a distinct and fixed segment of the population – not a different race or ethnicity. “The poor” are most definitely not some hostile species invading our backyards “bringing their poverty level with them,” as has been so callously suggested. Poverty is a situation that any one of us could very easily find ourselves in without warning. In fact, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), which has been surveying the economic situation of nearly 18,000 Americans for the last four decades, has determined that by the age of 75, nearly 80 percent of all Americans will have spent at least one year (and quite likely more than one year) living at or below a threshold of poverty.
Eighty percent! Those are high enough odds to safely assume that any number of our friends, family, and neighbors will be part of that demographic at some point.
Quite simply, poverty is a situation that all kinds of people find themselves flowing into and out of. I know. I was part of that 80 percent at one point in my life. I worked a full week, plus weekends. I wasn’t lazy. I didn’t make poor choices. I didn’t “bring my poverty level with me” into my neighborhood. I was just poor. Chances are that many reading this letter were, too. Or are now. Or will be. Poverty is systemic. We are all part of the system. We are all at risk. “The poor” is all of us.
Rev. John A. Cullinan