By Harry Hawkins

Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Personal responsibility. These are some of the phrases that often come up when whites in Madison and elsewhere talk about the symptoms of racial disparities and the racism that spawned it. The idea is that the problems many African Americans face are self-inflicted, and as such, can be solved by hard work.

Let’s explore this idea with facts and figures. Data. Real life scenarios. Do you know how little money a family makes to be considered to be below the poverty line? I have a family of five, and for my family to be considered impoverished, my wife and I have to earn less than $28,780. Gross. Based on an online calculator, that means I would bring home $935 a month.

My first challenge is to find affordable housing. When I search online, I find that the cheapest two bedroom available is $875, almost my whole monthly income. So I need affordable housing just so I can put my three kids in one bedroom. So I find housing assistance that allows me to find a two bedroom apartment for $500.

Now I have $435 left. The average cost for utilities in Madison is $117. That leaves me with $318 to live on.

I think you get the idea. The process goes on like this, where at every turn, I need to look for assistance just to live in a building, eat food, keep lights and water running in my residence. Three hundred dollars that must meet the needs of transportation for two adults, groceries for five people, clothing, school supplies, internet, phone, and a host of other expenses that I wouldn’t be able to afford if that was my real wage.

That’s not even considering that the assistance I need to survive, becomes a trap, because as soon as I make a little more money, say from working overtime, and my income rises above the poverty line, my assistance is threatened. If I make $30,000 annually, my net monthly income rises to $971, and I’m no longer able to qualify for the low-income housing and other similar services. What would you do in that scenario?How would you survive on $100 a month?

Of course, people should do their best, work hard, and make the most of the resources available to them. That goes without saying, but how does a person with this level of need, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, when they can’t afford to buy the boots? How can all of the responsibility lay squarely with the person who struggles just to exist, fights to have shelter and food?

So the real question is not how a person, African American or otherwise, can make their life better on their own, but rather for those who aren’t below the poverty line, how can we remove the roadblocks that will allow people to thrive? How can we create an atmosphere that makes Madison the same for all?

If you are interested, you can see what your poverty wage would be here. Try to make your own budget, and walk a mile in a different set of shoes.