MIT economist Peter Temin has found that it takes around 20 years with no setbacks to get out of poverty in the United States. A parent must begin in their child’s earliest years to help form a life that is able to overcome all the obstacles that come with being poor in this country. Any setback such as illness (you or any family member), arrests, loss of job, loss of housing, loss of transportation, and traffic tickets can throw a wrench in the works, adding time onto that 20-year haul, or stopping one’s ability to escape poverty altogether. We can see how any one of these small problems can be compounded and lead to greater problems.
Yes, even something as small as a traffic ticket can lead to major setbacks. If your brake lights go out or get broken and you can’t afford to fix them, you probably also can’t afford an initial ticket on top of the repair, or the next ticket you get for not having the repair done. If you can’t afford to pay the ticket, you’ll probably have a warrant out for your arrest. If you get arrested, you will lose income while you are in jail, and possibly loose your job altogether. You won’t have money for the repair, the ticket(s), the bail, or a lawyer. If you lose your job, you also won’t be able to afford your housing, and without housing, it will be hard to retain custody of your children. And on and on.
Any little problem can be the start of a disaster cascade when someone is in poverty. This is why the new policy in Hennepin County (Twin Cities, Minnesota) to not give out traffic tickets for broken lights is such an important move. And, not only are they not giving out tickets, they are handing out repair vouchers, so you can actually get your lights fixed even if you don’t have the funds to do so. This is a small but meaningful way to step into a small gap that can lead to greater debt and prevent someone from getting out of the cycle of poverty. It is like giving out bread when someone needs bread, instead of giving a stone.
The Lights On! program in Minnesota was created in response to the death of Philando Castile because many of his traffic stops and tickets were related to broken lights. In order to begin to repair relations between the police and the communities they patrol, Lights On! seeks to build community directly between officers and citizens in these exchanges, rather than being antagonistic. MicroGrants is a micro-lending organization in the Twin Cities that helped start Lights On! and administers the funding for the program.
In a week filled with growing uncertainty for our future, it is important to have concrete ways to keep bringing hope and change to the world. It is important to see how people continue to respond to tragedy with hope and tangible action to create change in their communities. Let’s take that hope and keep building on it.