Lessons about poverty in America’s heartland


April 7, 2022

I grew up poor. My single-dad grew up poor. And now, even as entrepreneurs — the embodiment of America’s “can-do” spirit and the engine of our economy — my partner and I are only just making ends meet.

I’ve had to learn a lot about poverty over the years — the endless toil, the insufficient health care, the exposure to polluted environments. It grinds down the body and the spirit. But I’ve also learned that suffering can be transformed into powerful movements for change.

One lesson is that working hard often just isn’t enough to escape poverty. And being poor certainly doesn’t mean you aren’t working.

As a child, I remember going red with embarrassment when we had to pull out food stamps at the store. Or worse, when I saw my dad’s name in the window along with others who’d written bad checks just so their children could eat that week.

The truth is, no one worked harder than my dad. He wasn’t to blame — the economic system that was rigged against working families like ours was.

Another lesson I’ve learned? Being poor can affect everything from your health to the air you breathe and the water you drink.

Today, with pandemic assistance running out, my partner and I are bracing for an unaffordable spike in our health care premiums. I’m worried we’ll be among the 300,000 people in our state of Wisconsin — and 16 million nationally — who will lose health coverage when federal health emergency assistance ends in a matter of weeks.

Because I haven’t been able to afford dental care, I already have to rely on partial dentures — and I’m only in my 30s. I worry what losing more care will mean for my health.

In many communities like ours, not even water is untouched by poverty. All of the municipal wells in our city of Wausau, Wisconsin have tested above the recommended limits for PFAs. These toxic chemicals have been linked to cancers, liver disease, preeclampsia, thyroid disease, and other serious health problems.

This doesn’t impact us all equally. Wealthier households can afford water filtration systems and cases of bottled water, while poorer households can’t.

For a long time, my partner and I felt alone in our struggles — until we joined the Wisconsin chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign. We’re now part of a community for change, able to address together the ills and suffering of a system rigged against people of color and low-income people of all races.

Now we’re fighting to make sure everyone in our community has access to good jobs, good health care, and clean water — no matter their income or race.

We’re fighting to bring back the Build Back Better framework, which would have extended Affordable Care Act subsidies for health care, lowered prescription drug costs, created good new green jobs, and so much more — before it was blocked by corporate-controlled politicians.

And we’re fighting to build on the success of the administration’s infrastructure bill, which will help our state and others deal with PFAs in our water and other pollution. The next step is to hold polluters accountable and regulate those chemicals in the future.

We can’t allow our families to drink, cook with, and bathe in toxic water. We can’t allow our children to continue to suffer the life-long ill effects of poverty.

We can’t allow our neighbors or ourselves to work so hard without being able to afford basic health care, dental care, or prescription drugs — especially not while billionaires profit from the pandemic and price-gouging corporations use inflation to increase their margins.

The most important lesson I’ve learned from poverty is that we’re all stronger together. We can join together and turn the tide.

Poverty. Poor People's Campaign