I recently stopped by a friend's house. She lives about one mile from me, but I had not seen her in a few weeks (other than in passing at church). She also hadn't been responding to my texts, so I was worried.
I brought my son when I stopped by her place because she has twin toddlers who my son absolutely adores.
She was surprised to see me. She had intentionally been avoiding me. I would say she was sheltering me from her life; from her vicious cycle of poverty.
When we arrived, my son immediately had to go to the bathroom (of course), and my friend told me the water had been shut off.
I couldn't say I was too surprised, she lost her job tow months prior, and even with the job she had a tough time making ends meet. Based on prior conversations, it wasn't unusual for her to be two or more months behind on utilities, and with the job loss, I wouldn't be surprised if it had been 4-5 months since her last payment.
Even though I had attempted to prepare myself, I was unprepared for a home without water, a fridge nearly devoid of food, and my friend's absolute hopelessness.
The hopelessness of a vicious cycle
My friend is caught in a vicious poverty cycle. A vicious cycle is a cycle in which the best possible decision leads to sub-optimal outcomes. The diagram above explains the cleansed version of vicious cycles. In reality, low investment and low productivity are only half the story. The other half of the story is the dirty side of the cycle.
My friend is clinically depressed, but she cannot afford her medication; it's better for her to pay for water than to pay for medication (even the low cost associated with Medicare). She often self-medicates with cheap booze or drugs (a choice to escape her depression which only makes it worse in the long run). Please don't think that I'm advocating drug use or alcohoism, merely explaining that her stimulus for chemicals is depression.
She has trouble holding down a job, partly because of her poor habits, and partly because she has to piece together a childcare patchwork quilt (relying on her mom or younger brother to watch her kids in the morning before they go to daycare), and partly because her son has a recurring illness which has him in and out of the hospital on a regular basis. She also is unlikely to accept a job in the services industry (outside of phone reps) due to the fact that she isn't physically in good enough shape to take those jobs on.
When she has money, she has to decide between rent (which is always paid), food (she has government help here), self-medication (or pharmaceuticals), car payments, and utilities. When she doesn't, everything goes unpaid, and sometimes the water gets shut off.
As my friend explained her current predicament, I listened. I heard a voice devoid of hope, a narrative devoid of a plan, and I saw a future no brighter than the one she was living in.
And I knew that I could help. For less than $3K, I could help her turn her life around. It does not take a lot of money to help someone on the brink to turn her life around.
Why I didn't help.
But I didn't help.
The real trouble with vicious cycles, especially those that involve mental health and addicitions is that they take the fight out of you. My friend could have asked for financial help; she knows that I have money (at least comparatively).
She could have asked for a job. She knows that I regularly need help with childcare and wouldn't decline help with our home renovation.
She didn't do any of those things. When I asked what was next for her, she had no response. When I asked how I could help she responded that she didn't know. (By the way, she was sober when I was over, it's not like I was talking to someone who couldn't have possibly known).
The sad truth of vicious poverty cycles is that many people don't care if they escape or not, or more accurately, they have lost the will to escape. Of course, not everyone stuck in a vicious poverty cycle is like my friend. Some want to get out. They desperately want out, but circumstances thwart them time and again, but this is another face of poverty.
It's hard to see a friend in need, to have the means to help, and to make a judgement call that my help would do nothing but alleviate temporary discomfort. Not that this is an unworthy cause, but she needs a lot more than for her discomfort to be alleviated; she needs to make long term changes.
I did my best to encourage her. I let her know that if she wanted my help, that I would sit down with her and create a budget and see what I could do to help. I told her that she could use my internet to push out resumes while her kids are at daycare. I told her to stop by for dinner anytime.
We've talked again since this event, and her mom moved in with her. The utilities are being paid, but little else has changed. She comes to my house, and we talk... usually about nothing too serious. We talk about faith and how our kids make us crazy. She asks about my pregnancy, and I get updates on her family. Sometimes we laugh.
I'm always exhausted after she visits. It's impossibly tiring to want more for someone who doesn't want it for themselves. It's hard to be a good friend to someone in need. It's hard to live in a virtuous cycle (one where good choices are consistently rewarded), and to see a friend trapped in the vicious cycle.
I question whether or not I made the right call, but in the end, I think I want my friend to want change more than I want it before I will really be willing to step in financially.
I'm a wife, a mom, an employee, and a personal finance nerd who is devoted to spreadsheeting my way through life.