February 28, 2024

Opinion: It takes strength to survive poverty — and a safety net to escape it

By Asia Walters

As a 32 year-old mother, I understand the extreme challenges my single mom faced better than ever. But I’ve also seen the life-changing difference a strong social safety net can make.

Above all, I’ve learned that poverty is a policy choice, not a personal one. We can reverse it — if we choose.

I grew up poor and lost my mother to suicide when I was just 14. Mostly homeless, I floated between sofas, cars, and the streets for years. Eventually I got food stamps, which were a tremendous help. With help from a friend, I got a job as a supervisor at an insurance company. And with help from a county program, my partner and I were able to secure an apartment.

At nearly 30, it was my first real break from homelessness. Then the pandemic hit and I lost my job. But thankfully, we received the expanded Child Tax Credit for my partner’s children and other income supports that helped us stay in our apartment.

Then my partner hit, too. When the abuse began, I had to flee.

It was a challenging time, but the expansion of the safety net in the early days of the Biden administration offered hope. Even as I was trying to find a new job and place to live — and hiding from my abuser — the pandemic assistance made it possible for me to do that.

My story isn’t unique. The investments in the American Rescue Plan, including the expanded Child Tax Credit, reduced poverty and unemployment to record lows, kept small businesses afloat, avoided a recession, and staved off hunger. Nearly 40 million families — including over 60 million children — were helped, and child poverty was cut nearly in half.

Unfortunately, lawmakers let these programs expire. And now those gains are being reversed — poverty made a record jump last year.

Now I have a baby and my resources are thin. My landlord threatens me with eviction nearly every month. I’ve borrowed money. I’ve searched for every church, every charity, and every government resource so I can feed, clothe, and house my baby. You won’t find more resourceful people than mothers trying to feed their children.

But with our shredded safety net, it’s not enough — for me or many others. Average rents are unaffordable for working families across the country, and where I live there’s a 12-15 year waiting list for Section 8 housing. Nationally, a childcare funding cliff is expected to close over 70,000 childcare centers nationwide unless lawmakers act.

And the hardline conservatives now running the House are threatening to cut even more programs, like Women, Infants and Children (WIC) benefits, that parents like me rely on.

Lawmakers and middle-class voters need to understand that poor people work as hard as humanly possible. We have families, we go to school, we access every resource we can find. It takes tremendous mental strength to survive poverty.

I don’t want other mothers to suffer — I want more for my child and theirs. And together, we can win it.

I found an advocacy organization called Parent Voices and began volunteering with them. I learned how to help other poor people advocate for better child care and budgets that prioritize children and families. I feel more empowered and hopeful now.

I’ve come to see that though life is a struggle, it’s a beautiful struggle when we all come together to make the change we want to see. Now we need lawmakers to hear our voices.

Asia Walters is a proud mom living in San Diego and helping to empower people like herself through Parent Voices.