What are we to do about poverty in America? Ignore it? That’s one option. Play like it doesn’t really exist? That’s another possibility. Define poverty in a way that means you are only poor if you have to beg? Blaming the poor for not working or not working hard enough? There are numerous ways of explaining it away, particularly in the face of national “economic growth.”
There are gaps geographically between obvious poverty and places where it is not as intense and hidden from view. But the truth is that high-poverty rates have crippled entire communities, leaving burning bellies and hope for better days vanishing. Income inequality is a stimulus for poverty. It has widened in recent decades, while upward mobility has declined. You can’t pull your bootstraps if you can’t reach the straps. There are simply too many that live in the day-to-day plight who just scrape by, largely invisible and along the margins. For those who are in the economic mainstream, it is important to see this as an economic warning for the economy to come and a down-turn that can only be avoided by addressing the problem. In other words, you can look at the situation in one of two ways. From the humanist standpoint, this is a manmade tragedy from economic policy, and no one should be destined to be without shelter, clothing, and food. From an economist or economic policy standpoint, something is not working in the formula, and the current situation must be remedied, or it’s going to grow beyond any workable remedy.
For starters, if you look at poverty as it affects those of color, the poverty rate for African Americans and Hispanics is particularly stark, with 27% of Africans falling below the poverty line and 23.5% of Hispanics doing so. The national and political giddiness of 3.5% unemployment leaves a lot untold. Without complicated research, it does not easily reveal how that figure is arrived at or what it includes and what it leaves out. That figure does not realistically include or apply to the people we are talking about, and these varied groups of people are not lazy. They are not. Not only are they not addressed in “full employment,” but for the first time in more than 50 years, the majority of America’s public school children are living in poverty.
The sheer number of poor people in America is striking, fully 45 million meet the official guidelines for poverty, and there is more to add to that from the next group up. The 45 million figure doesn’t include millions more who are among the working poor — those who tip-toe just above the government’s official poverty line, which is for a family of four an annual income of less than $23,850 and for an individual, an annual income of $11,670. There are millions added to this category each month. For the decade 2000 – 2010, we know the national SNAP (“Food-Stamps”) assistance covered about 13% of this group, although the present administration has cut a significant number off of assistance since that Census report. From our 2020 Census, we shall learn more.
The nation’s poor are scattered across every region of the country. While no race is immune from poverty, large pockets of poor Americans remain concentrated in the slave states of the South. Others live in the path of the Great Migration from the South to industrial cities in the North and Midwest, like Chicago. Those migrants and escaped slaves found no true solace, trading violence and Jim Crow segregation for racist housing and other policies that left them vulnerable to social, economic and political predators.
Apart from the focus on color, huge swaths of poor whites (particularly white women) reside in Appalachia, which boasts some of the highest poverty rates in the country. Entrenched in generational poverty, many of these communities have no public transportation, and troubling environmental and health concerns. Poverty and the criminal justice system run in tandem. The short-sightedness of the criminal justice design for a non-violent crime only exacerbates the seed problem of poverty. Once you are in the system, the odds are that you will never get out. Poverty is a violation of the criminal justice system in the application.
The new phenomenon in poverty is how it has expanded into the suburbs by families fleeing urban blight. So often this is the credit card poor who have lived from minimum payment to minimum monthly payment with 20% plus interest mounting and never being to extricate themselves until finally, they are not able to make up their living expense shortfall with credit cards. This is one-way poverty moves and expands, and once you see that, you know that there is something internally wrong with your domestic economic system. This is an economic indicator that something is not working in the free enterprise and governmental systems. The indicator is a deeper problem that is systemic and will grow if not altered.
The notion of an escape, of climbing out of poverty, of pulling one’s self up from the trenches of hunger to something better, is elusive, and the odds are greatly against it. Being poor bears a multifaceted stigma in America often perpetuated by politicians who play on tired stereotypes, stubborn myths and empty words.
Say that realistically we have 45 million living below the poverty line and another 50 million not at the poverty line but can’t make it from paycheck to paycheck. That’s a lot of people. What kind of governmental policy could turn this growing cancer around? What can the capitalist side of our democracy do? We do have a governmental policy at work trying to help; we have large corporations with their work training programs; we have NGO and nonprofit organizations helping the poor. The problem is that the problem is exponentially growing, and therefore, these systems are not solving the problem. There needs to be a more creative and better thought out system that includes the coordinated effort of all of these sources with a new vision. America needs to turn this on its head before it is too late for all of us. There needs to be an awakening of the American citizenry that we have a problem here. Doing nothing or maintaining the band-aid status quo won’t make it go away.
What are we to do?
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