When a choice amounts to no choice at all

This story from The Times of Trenton today is not about parenting, though that is the frame in which it is being reported. The story is about the difficult and dangerous decisions poor parents are forced to make everyday and the consequences they often face.

Sheena Johnson was arrested in April after police found her living in a Ewing storage locker with her two sons, ages 5 and 10. She apparently had been living with a boyfriend and, when they broke up, she found herself without a place to live. Her answer, which she now says was an error in judgment, was to move into the storage locker. She apparently had been living there for about a month when she was arrested (she also faces charges that she slashed the tires of her boyfriend’s car). According to an April 30 story in The Times,

He said the family went to restrooms at local businesses to brush their teeth and use the bathroom and were eating granola bars, applesauce and other packaged foods. Johnson told police she sometimes got a hotel room or brought the children to friends’ houses to shower, Mennuti said.

Her trial on abuse and neglect charges is supposed to start today, according to the Times. The story is a troubling one because, as the judge in the case points out, there are services available for families in need. At the same time, the reality is that most of these services are stressed beyond their limits, with shelter space now at a premium. There are also issues of trust, with many low-income families assuming the worst of social welfare agencies.

Her lawyer, Dan Toto of Lawrence Township, says

the Johnson case is fundamentally about people living outside the margins and struggling to make ends meet.


“She doesn’t have a substance abuse problem, she doesn’t have a drug problem, she’s just poor,” he said. “They’ve made that a crime now.”

I’m not sure I would go that far, though there are many laws on the books that make the lives of the poor more difficult than they need to be. In this case, the use of the storage locker may have seemed like an expedient way of gaining shelter, but it also was not healthy for the children. It was a bad decision on Johnson’s part, but may have been one of the few decisions available.

And that is our fault. We have made it too easy to become poor in this country, while also eviscerating the programs designed to help the poor and making sure that the stigma of poverty is debilitating. There is not enough affordable housing in New Jersey or nationally, especially for those at the lowest rungs of the income ladder, and there are not enough jobs that pay living wages, let alone poverty wages.

Sheena Johnson’s bad decision may cost her custody of her family, along with her freedom, but aren’t we culpable to some degree for creating a system in which her choices were so limited as to be almost no choice at all?


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