Harvey Finkle Photography

You can also read an interview with Joan Maya Mazelis at CCF@TSP regarding Surviving Poverty: Creating Sustainable Ties among the Poor.

Approximately 47 million people in the United States live under the poverty threshold. The erosion of the public safety net has made their struggle to survive more difficult in recent decades, and cuts currently under consideration that would weaken programs which help make medical care, food, and housing affordable and accessible to the poor would worsen this.

Those in desperate poverty often have to turn to a private safety net, frequently made up of family members, to meet basic needs, as many jobs fail to pay a living wage. But in my research on people living in poverty in Philadelphia, I found that many of the most vulnerable had no family members they could turn to, which meant any crisis could lead to homelessness. Others had family ties, but those relationships were often negative, characterized by long histories of unsupportive, mistrustful behavior.

As a child, Betty (note: all names here are pseudonyms) was a victim of sexual abuse by an older male relative, and when she told her parents, they didn’t believe her. Once she reached adulthood their relationship wasn’t better. While her mother allowed Betty and her daughter to live with her for a year when they had nowhere else to go, she made Betty’s husband sleep in his van outside their home. The couple had moved to Philadelphia in part to escape this arrangement, and Betty sometimes skipped meals to ensure their daughter got enough to eat.

When Rebecca and her son were homeless, her mother and sister sought custody of her child instead of inviting her to stay with them, citing Rebecca’s lack of a place to call home as evidence of her unfitness as a parent. For CC, fleeing her abusive husband meant fleeing the only family who could provide her and her two young children a place to live. Bebe had left her abusive, violent mother who did not allow her to go to school. Her aunt wanted to help her, but was homeless herself.

In my research, I found that some desperately poor people without supportive family ties joined together in a unique organization, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU). This group of and for poor people allowed many of them to provide each other the support they lacked from their families. This organization essentially substituted for family, fostering ties between members that provided housing, food, moral support, and a real sense of community. Many members built ties with one another that lasted for years, even decades.

Members often see each other as the family they never had or the one they wish they had. Pauline, who had moved to Philadelphia from out of state to live with her father and then became homeless when they had a conflict, had no other family to turn to for support when she came to the organization. She recalled: “When my family didn’t give me nowhere to stay [KWRU] did. . . .  When I came here they treated me like a family, like I was part of their little family.” James, said, “I got mad love for KWRU and KWRU family. . . . People in KWRU, I see them as like my brothers and sisters all the way around the board.”

Severe cuts in programs that help those in poverty means those who are struggling will need to lean on social ties more than ever. For those without family to rely on, KWRU served as a rare and meaningful substitute. But the organization’s ability to provide substantial help like housing weakened after its foundation grants expired in 2009. What they really require in an era of deeper needs is funding. Rather than slashing benefits to the poor and assuming family will fill the void, politicians and policy makers should make sure poor families have what is required to meet their needs—stable and affordable housing being the most fundamental among them and often the most difficult to acquire. And especially in a context of reduced government aid to the poor, organizations like KWRU need support so they can fill the voids that absent or destructive family ties create for those in very tenuous circumstances.

Joan Maya Mazelis is Associate Professor of Sociology and an affiliated scholar at the Center for Urban Research and Education at Rutgers University-Camden. Her book, Surviving Poverty: Creating Sustainable Ties among the Poor, is available from NYU Press.