It’s the way we have been taught, the images and responses we have been force-fed for decades:
In the face of 3.5% unemployment, record highs in the stock market and a strong American economy, the Census Bureau shows that 38 million people in the U.S. are living below the official poverty threshold. If you take into account common family needs beyond that absolute measure, the Institute for Policy Studies found that 140 million people are poor or low income, living below 200% of the Census supplemental measure of poverty. That’s almost half of the U.S. population. Why do most of us not know this? Isn’t this a drag on the economy that we are so proud of? Why is there such a huge space between the have’s and have-nots? Why are the have-nots half of the American population?
Poverty in America takes on many faces, some hidden, some on street corners, and within that massive group, poverty is extremely diverse. Some people are affected more than others, like veterans, children, the elderly, people with disabilities, and people of color. It ranges from credit card debt that cannot realistically be paid to the 4 in 10 Americans that can’t come up with $400 in an emergency, to roaming the streets homeless.
One has to wonder, if America is so prosperous, what do these figures mean, and why aren’t those not in poverty more concerned about their neighbor? For some reason, it just isn’t a popular subject in the national discourse. We had rather take the attitude that poverty is self-imposed, and in America, anyone can “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” Unfortunately, that is a bumper-sticker myth. That is not the reality of American economics or policy as it currently stands.
The United States Supreme Court said on Monday that it will not review a decision that makes it a crime for homeless people to sleep outdoors. So, where are they supposed to sleep? Times journalists Thomas Fulker and Josh Haner recently spent three months in a homeless camp in Oakland, getting to know dozens of residents. They then traveled to a shantytown in Mexico City for comparison. There was no difference between the two. America’s homeless camps are no different from the slums of Brazil, Mexico and Pakistan, with no access to toilets or showers and constant fear of being cleaned off the streets or attacked by someone. Nights are the worst for this.
It doesn’t have to be this way. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu back in 2014 stood before a crowd at the city’s World War Two Museum on the Fourth of July and issued a surprising declaration: New Orleans would end veteran homelessness by the end of the year.
It seemed an impossible dream. No community had ever accomplished any such feat — eradicating homelessness among any particular group of residence — and the deadline was daunting, particularly for a city that had not seen a model for bureaucratic efficiency.
Over the next six months, staffers and volunteers with Unity of Greater New Orleans, the lead of a collaborative including 60 governmental and nonprofit groups, scrambled and strained and succeeded to find homes for homeless vets. The city not only made history but did so an entire year ahead of the deadline challenged by then First Lady Michelle Obama to U.S. mayors to find housing for the country’s veterans.
The New Orleans program is still a success. If only, all of the nation’s mayors would study the model. There is much that can be done. There is much to be done. First, take it upon yourself to become knowledgeable about what poverty in America really is. You don’t get this from some talk show host. Look it in the face!
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