Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Still the other America: The rise of poverty in the United States

In 1962, Michael Harrington wrote The Other America, a masterful examination of poverty in America and one of the major works behind LBJ's Great Society. Juxtaposing the "other" America of the poor, "the economic underworld of American life," with the "familiar" America of the "affluent," Harrington argued that American poverty "twists and deforms the spirit," while the poor themselves are "pessimistic and defeated," "victimized by mental suffering to a degree unknown in Suburbia". Yet this America "is off the beaten track," "hidden today in a way that it never was before". Indeed, "the poor are politically invisible," "increasingly slipping out of the very experience and consciousness of the nation".

How much has changed in four decades?

Today, the Census Bureau released new figures showing that poverty has increased, with the number of Americans living in poverty rising to 37 million, up 1.1 million from 2003. Of these, a third are children. As a percentage of the population, 12.7% of the population lives in poverty. In 2000, 31.1 million Americans lived in poverty. Since then, the number has risen steadily, to 32.9 million in 2001 and 35.8 million in 2003. In addition, the number of American without health insurance rose to 45.8 million, up from 45.0 million last year.

This may or may not have anything to do with President Bush -- I'm not about to make that judgment here -- but it's interesting to note that this increase in poverty is occurring in a time of solid economic growth. Whoever, or whatever, is to blame, I think that John Edwards is right: "America should be showing true leadership on the great moral issues of our time -- like poverty -- instead of allowing these situations to get worse."

And so, still, is Michael Harrington: "The other Americans are those who live at a level of life beneath moral choice, who are so submerged in their poverty that one cannot begin to talk about free choice. The point is not to make them wards of the state. Rather, society must help them before they can help themselves... This suffering is such an abomination in a society where it is needless that anything that can be done should be done... In any case, and from any point of view, the moral obligation is plain: there must be a crusade against this poverty in our midst... How long shall we ignore this underdeveloped nation in our midst? How long shall we look the other way while our fellow human beings suffer? How long?"

Yes, how long?

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  • One of the barriers to addressing poverty (particularly in the US) is the attitude that people deserve what they get (because they could work to get something else). Blame the poor for being poor. The religious right reinforces this with misguided biblical interpretations. Many societies (even in Canada to some extent) have mitigated poverty greatly through social structures.

    A good start might be universal health care...

    By Blogger Gary, at 9:26 PM  

  • I have been bothered by the failure of either party to even discuss poverty in America. It seems to be a subject that no longer exists even though anyone living in a big city has to make their way through a gauntlet of homeless people. People are concerned about the middle and working classes, but seemingly not about the truly poor.

    But I think Nate is right to a point. There is a definitional problem in talking about poverty. Are we talking only about people that are truly poor, that don't have enough to eat or decent housing? Or do we include the working poor, for example, who would be wealthy by standards of much of the Third World, but who live significantly constrained lives. What is poverty and what is the government's duty to alleviate it? Is it to equalize everyone or to provide a basic minimum quality of life? Some will always have a better quality of life than others.

    The next question is how to address poverty and I think that's a much more difficult question. It's easy to bemoan poverty, but much harder, it seems to me, to effectively address it. Even France, with its extensive social protections, for example, has poverty. The problem is poverty is not amenable to easy solutions because, IMO, it is not simply an economic problem--it's an economic, psychological, cultural, social, educational, and political problem. It's easy to invoke Michael Harrington for "The Other America" but I am skeptical about our actual ability to impact poverty without making real changes in the culture and psychology of the poor. But that doesn't mean that we should not at least be talking about it.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:02 AM  

  • My famiy is poor. I get abot 600 a week ssi and my husband makes 400 a week. We pay 525 in rent and atleast 200 to pay the power bill every month. Groceries are outrageous, gas is outrageous. We have 2 kids are oldest is 18 and hasn't finished highschool yet because I have had crohns, major recurrent depression and type 2 diabetes which caused numerous hospitalizations ( she missed alot of school because of the stress in the family) and then my husband got sick. He had Numerous surgeries, lost his job and was out of work 2 years. Our car broke down durinmg this time also and we tried to rely on my mother n law to take our children to school...she rarely showed up then she came and took our 10 year old and didn't bring her back. She rerely took her school and now my daughter is twelve, back home since jan and soooo far behind I don't think she'll ever feel good about public school again. Our house is falling apart...we can't afford to fix it up. The people we rent from aren't interesetd in making this a decent place for renters...they want us to buy it and so they can just unload it. No chance...we can't afford it.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:26 AM  

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