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  

  • At the risk of sounding callous, I venture raise an eyebrow of skepticism at these reports. I looked for how poverty is defined on google and came up with a bunch of confusing definitions. As I understand it poverty relates to a level of income below a country's average, but I could be wrong.

    Why I am skeptical is because I used to teach in an inner city school that supposedly had a not insignificant amount of kids living in poverty. Yet all these kids had stylish clothes and enough food, and a roof over their heads. Nobody showed up to school malnourished (free breakfast and lunch for kids who filled out a form) or in dirty clothes. And I swear it seemed like every kid had a cellphone, even kids who didn't live with their parents.

    I'm not saying all was hunky dory with these kids, but after witnessing real poverty in rural China, where people lived in crumbling houses without any plumbing, with dirty clothers and no opportunities for social advancement, I feel like we in America don't know what real poverty is.

    Perhaps I haven't seen the starving kids in America, or the kids living on the street like they do in India and Latin America, but I am highly skeptical that our poverty is anywhere near on par with suffering people around the world.

    This isn't a call for inaction, just perspective.

    By Blogger N. Lowe, at 3:06 AM  

  • nate: "but I am highly skeptical that our poverty is anywhere near on par with suffering people around the world."

    nate, I'm not attacking you--I haven't seen a lot of your comments; but I'm stealing your line to make a point. That is, using this comparison to say we're ok (whcih you don't, but some surely do) is simply wrong. The wealthiest nation in the world should not--cannot--use the third world to judge itself and it's treatment of it's citizens. A rich and moral nation has an obligation to all of it's people; we can't just say it's not really so bad. Again, I'm not trying to put words in your mouth; but the attitude implicit in that statement lets many people comfortably ignore a real problem.

    By Blogger les, at 11:05 AM  

  • les-

    I think I disagree. If people have basic food, clothing, shelter, and access to education, there isn't much more that is within the government's duty to help them, aside from perhaps health insurance. Just because 2/3 of American homes have air conditioning does not mean the other third have a right to air conditioning. At a certain point amenities are to be worked for, not made a right.

    To the extent that Americans don't have enough food, clothing, etc., more should be done to help them. But we don't need to pay for nicer apartments, expensive shoes, etc.

    By Blogger N. Lowe, at 1:59 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  

  • Nate, I too think you have a point; but I think you downplay the huge gap between "better than the rest of the world's poor", and making sure people have air conditioning. OK, most folks below the poverty line in the U.S. probably don't have rickets and scabies, and aren't dying in thousands from intestinal parasites, tuberculosis, etc. (although none of those things are unknown either). But thousands routinely have to choose between food and medicine for themselves or kids (I suppose we could forbid the poor from breeding), can't buy school books, never think about preventive medicine, live in vermin infested housing; and most of them work, at least at some level. An interesting discussion is going on at Balloon Juice, on the isue of how many folks who didn't evacuate NO just couldn't--no car, no cash for busses, motels, don't have enough to imagine just picking up and leaving. I'm not suggesting our society has an obligation to provide "middle class life" for everyone, whatever that is. I'll take Marc's statement about changing the culture and psychology of the poor a step further--we'll need to change the culture and psychology of the culture. When you have a job, live in a dump, kids are hungry and every paycheck is gone before the next one arrives, "personal responibility" and "up by your own bootstraps" is just so much BS.

    By Blogger les, at 1:15 PM  

  • les-

    I agree with you and Marc, that American poverty is not just an economic problem, which is why as you might expect I am critical of the degree to which a lot of my very leftish friends putting too much emphasis on redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor. We need to change the culture and psychology of the poor, to confront and improve their attitudes towards education, economics, community, etc.

    I have never been in the camp of conservatives who view life as a Darwinian struggle, and that the poor are fundamentally lazy or immoral. I don't think the poor blacks who stayed behind in New Orleans did so because are inherently lazy or igornant. But nor do I think it was solely a matter of economics, such as access to a car or cash. It was a complex interplay between cultural attitudes and economic incentives, both of which feed off of each other but cannot be addressed alone.

    It would take a long post for me to lay out my feelings on the type of intervention I'd be willing to support when it comes to government and the poor, but suffice to say it would focus on explicitly transforming the culture in a way that it unappealing to those who advocate a more validating approach. And it would not allocate the poor money that isn't attached to some kind of incentive to improve a peson's worth ethic, duty to family, etc.

    Regardless, it is good for all of us to have this discussion.

    By Blogger N. Lowe, at 4:05 PM  

  • 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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