Thinking About the Poor   /   Fall 2014   /    Thinking About The Poor

Inside the Safety Net

Michael and Ines Jindra

Women at a shelter in South Dakota pray before dinner, 2009; Stephan Gladieu/Getty Images.

Generally speaking, there is no clear line between those who have a chance to be self-supporting and those who don’t.

Agnes’s anxious expression betrayed her desperation. She had kids at home and was on the verge of losing her electricity. Common Concern1 was her last hope. Other people waiting in the hallway were in similar straits or worse, with evictions pending. Several of the clients had already finished their paperwork, having gone through the agency circuit before. That journey usually begins with a trip to the local government office, which may pay up to half of a client’s bill. Common Concern, typically, is the second stop, providing more help with the bill and a little more personal attention. The counselors here collect details about income, benefits, and household expenses to assess their clients’ overall situations and determine whether they need budget counseling, help finding a job, or something else.

Common Concern is on the frontlines of emergency services for those poor who are facing financial disasters such as imminent evictions or utility shutoffs. The Salvation Army is the best-known provider of such services, but many other independent nonprofits around the country do their part. To get a better sense of the complexities of poverty and of the people who are variously dealing with it, we recently spent time in various kinds of assistance agencies, conducting interviews and doing volunteer work ourselves. Over the last two years, Michael interviewed more than 350 Common Concern clients in a midsized city in the Midwest; previously, we both did similar kinds of volunteer work in another, smaller city. As we quickly learned, different kinds of nonprofits serve different kinds of poor populations. One major local agency works with a better-off population that has possibilities for self-sufficiency. At the other end of the agency spectrum are shelters such as Mary’s Place that provide refuge for people living in chaotic circumstances with only minimal public support. Taken together, these and other nonprofits provide a window on some of the colliding and commingling subcultures that make up the kaleidoscopic world of the poor.

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