The Poverty Trap

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As Americans, we are torn between two disparate images of poverty. One is the romantic poverty of Thoreau and Saint Francis, the holy poverty of simple lives. The other is vilified poverty, the poverty of the “welfare queen” and the “bum.” The holy poor live in stories and myth. The vilified poor live on the streets, in their cars, on the floors of already crowded houses, and in makeshift shelters. Their lives are marked by insecurity, lack, and stigma.

In truth, the vilified poor are individuals just like us. They often have jobs, spouses, and children. They have hopes, dreams and fears. They agonize over how to make ends meet and worry about their kids. Like all of us, they want to be happy. Most would very much like to get out of poverty.

193px-Paiute_Deadfall_TrapGetting out of poverty can be difficult, especially for families, and that’s why Neighborhood Place of Puna exists. We offer families the support and skills they need to raise safe and healthy children. We also support and advocate for them as they struggle to overcome the many obstacles along the path out of poverty.

Such was the case for a young woman who came into our program. Lehua (not her real name) had several children and was actively looking for work. She was participating in the First-to-Work employment training program and had good references from her volunteer work.

The difficulties began when she was offered employment in a position for which she was very qualified. After 9/11, laws covering the types of legal identification required for employment, and how that identification can be acquired, were radically changed. It became harder to get a valid ID, ostensibly to keep non-US citizens from getting IDs and employment. However, it also made it more difficult for those trapped in poverty to get the ID essential to work legally in post-9/11 America.

The new job required Lehua to drive, so a simple state ID, used for identification purposes only, was not going to be sufficient for employment. (A state ID is used for identification purposes only.) She needed a valid driver’s license and auto insurance. Unfortunately, Lehua’s driver’s license had expired, and she could not renew it until she paid off several hundred dollars in outstanding tickets. Of course, Lehua didn’t just need a driver’s license to be employed. She needed one so she could legally drive her children to and from school, go grocery shopping, and run all of the many errands necessary for a young mom with children.

Certainly Lehua bears some of the responsibility for her predicament. In the best case scenario, she would not have allowed unpaid fines to accrue to the point that she was unable to renew her driver’s license. But this is the reality of poverty. Even the best-intentioned and most motivated people are forced to make hard choices about which bills to leave unpaid, or what essentials to go without.

Lehua was trying to do the right thing, turning her life around by seeking and finding employment. However, the lack of something as basic as a valid driver’s license was standing in her way.

Fortunately, Lehua was in Neighborhood Place of Puna’s Family Strengthening program. First, our staff worked with Lehua and the court to try to put together a payment plan that would allow Lehua to get her driver’s license renewed while paying off her fines. Although the judge was sympathetic to Lehua’s situation, he was not willing to set up a payment plan.

Undaunted, Neighborhood Place of Puna reached out to some of our supporters and secured a micro-loan for Lehua. With their help, Lehua was able to pay off her fines. The court clerk expedited the paperwork, and instead of waiting weeks, Lehua was able to reapply for and receive her driver’s license the very next day.

Without Neighborhood Place of Puna’s help, Lehua would have remained unemployed. She would have continued to drive her kids to school illegally, with an expired driver’s license, no insurance, and expired registration and safety inspection. Very likely, she would have received more tickets and citations, pushing her even farther away from the possibility of legal employment. Without employment, she would have quickly depleted her five years of TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) benefits and have been left without any financial means. She would likely have been trapped in poverty for the rest of her life, in spite of her willingness to work and earn money for her family.

Fortunately, this is not how Lehua’s story ends. Neighborhood Place of Puna was able to help her overcome some of the obstacles in her path to success. She is now happily employed and passionate about the work that she is doing, work that helps her community. She has paid off the micro-loan she received from Neighborhood Place of Puna. Because she is now employed, she has qualified for a program that assisted her with the down payment on a more reliable newer car. There are still challenges and difficulties, as there are in all of our lives. But for Lehua, escaping poverty is now a real possibility.

Paul Normann, Executive Director

Image: “Paiute Deadfall Trap” by Yourcelf – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –


  1. Paul Normann

    I am glad that you enjoyed the post. We all start with where we are. Maybe it is difficult for you to write. However, I am sure that if you look, you can find something that you can do to help make things a little better in your “neighborhood.”

  2. Aw, this was a very nice post. In concept I would like to put in writing like this additionally – taking time and actual effort to make an excellent article… but what can I say… I procrastinate alot and under no circumstances appear to get something done.

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