Some People are So Poor, They Can’t Afford to Get Jobs

One day recently, I was reading through Facebook posts from my friends on my personal Facebook account. Usually, when I’m doing this, “blog post” is not one of the first things I have in mind.

But then, I saw a post where a friend of mine shared an image of a tweet from someone I didn’t even know…

It does sound absurd, that someone could be so poor they can’t afford to get a job. But, as ridiculous as this tweet may sound, it’s true—the expenses involved in getting and keeping a job can be prohibitively expensive.

Here are a few expenses that are required to get or keep a job, that can also be just too expensive for some people:

Money to keep your car running

Corbin’s tweet talks about “gas money,” and she’s right that gas money is one of the costs that makes someone so poor that they can’t get to a job interview or to a job. But, there’s also the cost of making sure the car remains in good shape, of getting repairs when something breaks, and of inevitably getting a new car when your old car struggles to run as it should. After all, there are many jobs that require you to have a car, so if you can’t afford to have a functional car, you can’t afford to have a job.

Or, if you don’t drive to and from work, money for mass transit

I’m blessed to live in a place where you can take mass transit to and from work. However, mass transit fares can add up over the course of a year. For example, if one were to get a monthly mass transit pass in New York City, that’s over $1,500 a year in mass transit expenses alone (at $127 a month). For someone who’s earning a lot of money, $1,500 may not sound like a ton. But for someone on the edge financially, that $1,500 may be the difference between being able to afford to get to a job—or not.

Child care

If you have a child and you are looking to work a job for 40 hours a week, your child needs to somehow be taken care of until you get home from work. Hence, the need for child care. But it costs many thousands of dollars a year, in many cases, to make sure your child is getting proper child care. In New York City, it costs, on average, over $16,000 a year for an infant to be in child care![1] Even with a $15 an hour minimum wage—something that many progressives advocate for—that’s half a year’s worth of your salary spent on child care alone.

Dress code

Corbin’s tweet also talks about people not being able to afford the money to adhere to the dress code for a job interview, let alone the multiple appropriate outfits necessary for a job. On a personal note, there was one time months ago when I ran into someone begging for money on the subway…so that he could get nice clothes for his job interview. I hope he got his money, and his clothes. In the meantime, this story exemplifies how it costs money—lots of it—to have the dress code you need for a job interview and a job. If you don’t have the money to buy professional clothing, then it puts you in a difficult situation professionally.


So, next time there’s a temptation to judge a poor person for not working hard enough to get back on their feet, I really wish that we were less judgmental, and remembered that the obstacles to “getting back on their feet” (in other words, getting a job) are, in some cases, too enormous to overcome at times. Instead, it would be best to find solutions that would allow for a poor person to not spend as much on car maintenance, for someone in economic need to get reduced-fare or free mass transit,[2] for reduced-price or free child care to exist for those who need it, and for more reduced-price or free professional clothing to exist for those who need it.[3] There are many economic barriers that lie between many people and jobs, and instead of calling someone lazy for encountering those barriers, it would be best to figure out how to remove the barriers.


[1] https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/average-cost-daycare-nyc-tops-16k-article-1.2428709

[2] New York City has a program through which low-income residents can get reduced-fare mass transit passes, so such policies can and do exist in some places: https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/home/downloads/pdf/resources/2018/Fair-Fares-FAQ-English.pdf

[3] Some individual programs, such as Dress for Success (for women) or the Men’s Wearhouse Suit Drive (for men) can help. However, individual programs like these are not enough. Click here for more information on Dress for Success and click here for more information on the Men’s Wearhouse Suit Drive.

Why the “Bootstraps” Narrative of Economic Mobility is Problematic

“I pulled myself up by my bootsraps and that’s how I got to where I am today.”

To which I would say, “Congratulations on your success! I’m happy for you!”

While I do not begrudge people who succeed through their hard work (nor should others), I’m also concerned that this “bootstraps” narrative is also harmful to many people who don’t achieve what American society defines as success, on the grounds that they “didn’t pull by the bootstraps at all/hard enough.” And at that, I’m concerned enough that it’s worth dedicating a blog post to this.

One problem is that the idea of “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” creates a wrongful impression that we do, or we can, succeed all by ourselves without any help from others. But the fact is that, while some people accomplish great things without much help, that happens rarely. I say that because, somewhere along the way, many of us get help from academic or athletic scholarships, an employer who believed in us when we struggled to believe in ourselves, a mentor, a wealthy family member or friend, or someone else—or a combination of some of these. Of the people I know, both personally and in the public arena, I can’t recall a single person who succeeded without another person helping them or believing in them.

Furthermore, to say “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” creates the impression that people who don’t succeed (or achieve society’s definition of success) are automatically lazy, underachievers, or have some other negative characteristic. While I’m sure there are people who don’t succeed because of their own wrongdoings, many others struggle because of characteristics outside their control. For example, I’ve known people to experience struggles because of tragic events in their life or the lives of people they’re closest to, various ailments, unjust events, or other things. Sometimes there are life circumstances that keep people from being able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, or have no bootstraps at all.

Finally, the “bootstraps” narrative does not acknowledge that there are flaws in our society which keep people from doing exactly that. From the mountains of college debt that keep some younger adults from being able to pull themselves up, to various forms of institutional racism which keep some groups of people weighed down (some of which I mention in various posts in my current institutional racism series), some people lack the “bootstraps” to pull on.

Ultimately, the “bootstraps” narrative of success, as nice as it sounds, does not do justice to either the people who help us succeed or those among us who don’t succeed for reasons outside of their control.