At Tuesday evening’s Straight Talk SC: Can’t Win for Losing sponsored by the Riley Institute and the Osher Life Long Learning Institute at Furman University, Dr. Kyle Longest led a powerful discussion about how structural constraints impact decisions and life outcomes. For example, when a single mother with a seven-year-old and a two-year –old who works full-time for minimum wage needs housing, she’s likely going to want a two-bedroom apartment. However the Fair Market Rate rent in SC for a 2-bedroom apartment is currently $756, which is not affordable on a monthly income of $1276 gross. So hopefully she can find a place for about $400-$450 a month. However, that means she is likely living in a substandard neighborhood which may mean her children could be in a dangerous environment. Also if she gets a two-bedroom, then two people are going to sleep in the same room. With a two-year-old child in the household, sharing a room means that someone is likely not to get a good night’s sleep. If the seven-year-old does not sleep, then school work may suffer. If mom does not get adequate sleep, she may not perform on her job well and end up losing her employment. The structural constraints impact her decisions.
Dr. Longest confronted the fallacy that welfare is the answer. He reminded everyone that TANF, Temporary Need to Needy Families, has a sixty month life time limit. He also demonstrated that switching in the late 1990s from the former welfare program known as AFDC, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, did not accomplish what its proponents had hoped. In 1994/1995, there were 118,700 poor people in South Carolina. Of that number approximately 49,800 received AFDC, or about 42%. In 2010/2011, in SC there were about 135,000 people living below the federal poverty guidelines. Of those, 19,800 received TANF, or 15 percent. The maximum of TANF benefits is $2600 a year, assuming there is no income. As soon as a person earns more than $1412 a month, the benefits decrease incrementally. Once again, structural constraints affect decisions. The underlying assumption is that if one works, one is not in poverty. However, with the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, a person working forty hours a week, 52 weeks a year, earns $15,080. The federal poverty guideline for a family of three is $19,790. So our single mom with two children is still below the poverty line. AND… assuming a minimum wage worker works 40 hours a week and 52 weeks a year may be a false assumption.
So in groups of two-three people on Tuesday evening, we designed a budget for our mom. My group realized quickly there was not enough money for housing, utilities, transportation, food (even with food stamps now known as SNAP), and childcare. We didn’t even try to budget for healthcare, clothing, phone, school supplies, or entertainment.
Those in my group have worked in poverty issues for many years so we knew where the exercise was taking us. What was fascinating was to listen to the whispered comments around us: “Use public transportation.” (The person making the comment has obviously not used the existing public transportation as the only source of getting around! ) “Buy cheap food, ie processed food.” (Obesity? Poor nutrition? Health problems?) These were just a few comments.
When we are willing to put ourselves in the situations that some of our neighbors live in, we realize that we may probably make many of the same decisions they make. We realize that the structure makes pulling out of poverty EXTREMELY difficult for many.

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