Poverty is not a choice: The hard work of being poor

by Pamela Garrison

As Congress advances a COVID-19 relief package that calls for a $15 national minimum wage by 2025, I am aware that some people think that being poor is a personal choice, or something that reflects personal failings. It isn’t and it doesn’t.

I’m a coal miner’s daughter — no one has to teach me about hard work. My four siblings and I grew up in a West Virginia coal camp. Hard-working people were the foundation of our lives, even as the air we breathed was polluted with coal dust.

The mines offered good work for a while, but they took a terrible toll. Our communities and water were contaminated. Neighborhoods polluted with PCB from abandoned coal mines had dogs running around hairless. Our health suffered too.

I lost both my parents to cancer — my dad’s was related to black lung. I lost two brothers to the AIDS crisis, and one of my daughters struggles with addiction. I nearly lost a sister to health problems, so I care for her in my own home.

Now my husband has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease after decades of hard, dangerous work in the mines and many terrible injuries. He suffered a heart attack in his 40s and is now in his 60s. I have disabilities of my own, but I care for him as best I can.

I’ve worked my whole adult life as a cashier, but money is tight. Years ago I attended night school in hopes of getting a management position, but the store gave it to a 19-year-old man with no experience instead.

When we tried to get public assistance, we learned just how meager — and hard to get — it can be. After one of my husband’s injuries, we went two years without help because our annual income was $3 too high.

All this was before COVID-19. When the pandemic hit, I couldn’t even get the small jobs I relied on to help my family survive. Congress finally sent us $600 in December — not even enough to cover our propane heating bill.

Here’s what I’d like folks to understand: We aren’t poor, sick, injured and dying because of bad choices. We didn’t choose this. We chose hard work, family, faith and community. But because of bad policies, that wasn’t enough even before the pandemic. Now there’s more pressure on our communities than ever before.

For me, things changed when I saw the Rev. William J. Barber II on television preaching. He urged us to use the blessings we do have to work toward better policies for all of us. Now, as a member of the Poor People’s Campaign, I fight for fairer policies.

We’ve led caravans all around West Virginia to build support for a living wage, health care for all, safer working conditions and good green jobs to replace the coal mining jobs that have been killing us for decades.

Rev. Barber even joined us as we pushed Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to support a $15 minimum wage. Amazingly, he’s still refusing — for now.

I was disappointed, but poor people are used to having to push our politicians. If we were quitters, we’d have quit by now. But we’re not.

We are stronger together. We may not have chosen our poverty, but we are choosing to keep fighting for what’s right.

Pamela Garrison is a member of the West Virginia chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.