Thursday, May 10, 2018

Born Poor, Staying Poor

The Human Condition

This is Part 2; Part 1 was Careless People(January 24, 2018).


“The millions who are poor in the United Stares tend to become increasingly invisible. … It takes an effort of the intellect and will even to see them.” 
Michael Harrington [1928–1989], an American democratic socialist, 
The Other America: Poverty in the United States, chapter 1, 1962

“In the final analysis, the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied in a single garment of destiny. All life is interrelated, and all men are interdependent. The agony of the poor diminishes the rich, and the salvation of the poor enlarges the rich. We are inevitably our brothers' keeper because of the interrelated structure of reality.”
“The Quest for Peace and Justice,” December 11, 1964 

“There are millions of Americans whose suffering, through material poverty and poor health, is as bad or worse than that of the people in Africa or in Asia.” 
Angus Deaton, a professor of economics at Princeton University
& Nobel laureate in economics (2015),
The New York Times, January 24, 2018

There are the stats to consider. I am not going to bore you with too much figures, because these tend to bog down the argument in a sea of numbers, which after awhile become meaningless. I will just give a few salient facts—just five—about what it means to live in poverty in America:
  • Food insecurity: According to the latest government stats from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA, 12.3 percent (15.6 million) of U.S. households were food insecure at some time during 2016. This consists of 41 million people, including 6.5 million children. The most dire numbers show that “703,000 children (1.0 percent of the Nation’s children) lived in households in which one or more child experienced very low food security.” There are higher rates of food insecurity in the American southern states.
  • Lack of Access to Dental Care: The main point is found in an article (“The tragedy of ‘Mountain Dew mouth’ and the U.S.’s insane approach to dental care;” June 20, 2017) in Salon on how poor oral health affects millions of Americans. More than one-third of Americans do not have dental insurance. “Yet throughout the United States, from remote areas of Alaska and across the contiguous 48, poor people struggle to get access to regular dental care, relying on charity clinics and hospital emergency rooms.”
  • Higher incidences of poor health: The main point to take away is that not only do the poor generally suffer poorer health, but that the poor die young; such is stated in an article (“Why the Poor Die Young;” April 12, 2016) in The Atlantic.
  • Lower educational achievement: The main point is that money can help academically poor students do better. A 2011 study by the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA) shows a widening gap between the wealthy and the poor in educational achievement (“The widening academic achievement gap between the rich and the poor: New evidence and possible explanations; 2011); in it, the author writes: The gap appears to have grown at least partly because of an increase in the association between family income and children's academic achievement for families above the median income level: a given difference in family incomes now corresponds to a 30 to 60 percent larger difference in achievement than it did for children born in the 1970s. Moreover, evidence from other studies suggests that this may be in part a result of increasing parental investment in children’s cognitive development.” Simply put, wealthy parents have the means to pay for extra tutoring in subjects like math and science, where students usually have difficulty. This is found in the publication, Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality and the Uncertain Life Chances of Low-Income Children (2011).
  • Lower prospects for a decent job: The main point is that poor people are less likely to both attend and graduate from college, which leads to poorer prospects for a decent job in an economy where education matters. So says an article (“The Growing College-Degree Wealth Gap;” April 25, 2016) in The Atlantic: “Graduates who hailed from households with incomes of at least $116,000—the top quarter—represented more than half of all the degrees awarded in 2014 among 24-year-olds. Students from households that earned less than $35,000—the lowest quarter—represented just 10 percent of all the degrees awarded.” The cost of higher education must be a  deterring factor, even with the availability of grants and scholarships. 
One leads to the other in a downward spiral to the bottom: food insecurity and poor health, including oral health, leads to inability to focus in the classroom, and an inability to get outside tutoring, which leads to not doing well in school, which leads to poor job prospects, etc. You get the picture; it’s not a pretty one. The American system makes success for the poor more difficult, placing more and more barriers to success in their way. The result is already evident after many decades of neglect: the fabric of society begins to tear and then large rips begin to appear. Social unrest does not suddenly appear ex nihilo. Even The World Economic Forum, the place where machers, knakkers and tokhes likkers congregate, has raised the issue in its 2018 report (“Global Risks 2018: Fractures, Fears and Failures”).

I am not here suggesting that the poor are noble, though they can act noble; there is assuredly no nobility in poverty. The poor often act against themselves and their best interests. They make mistakes and often have poor judgement. A cycle of poverty and despair can weaken anyone’s resolve and lead to bad decisions, which often have a negative over-all effect. The poor, I would argue, deserve at least some dignity, which simply means not rubbing their faces in it. Martin Luther King, Jr’s Nobel Lecture (1964) reminds us that both rich and poor are “tied in a single garment of destiny,” that ignoring the cries of the poor imperils the nation in which they live, by diminishing its moral state and sense of justice.

Which leads me to wonder out loud how much has changed in the last fifty years. Things improved in America after Michael Harrington wrote The Other America (1962), which influenced President Lyndon B. Johnson to publicly declare two years later an unconditional War on Poverty. There was initial success until about 1978, and then America in the last 30 years began to regress, regardless of which political party was in power, thereby eroding any gains that the poor previously made. Under the politics of neo-liberalism, The War on Poverty became The War on the Poor. 

After decades of such cruel policies, falling into poverty has become and is now a growth industry, with the number of poor at about 22 per cent of the U.S. population (if we use the same metric as was used in 1962), the same as when Harrington’s book was published and when King delivered his Nobel words. Angnus Deaton, the 2015 Nobel laureate in economics, confirms that poverty remains very much a problem in America. As astounding as this is, more astounding is how normalized this has become, as if it acceptable for a wealthy nation to have millions and millions of people mired in poverty, while a small minority are extremely wealthy. 

As to the reason why, the short answer is the nature of American politics, where the poor do not have much power and thus are not heard in the corridors of Congress. The poor are invisible, and if the wealthy have their way, they shall remain in this state for eternity. The actions of the politicians speak volumes; they do evil in the light of day, but do so with deception and duplicity, without any thought of the cruel consequences to the common man and woman, the average Jill or Joe. 

Cui bono? Again, thinking out loud, I doubt that any of these critics of democratic socialism have ever faced poverty; I doubt that any have lived poor with food insecurity for most of their child-hood, or with a parent or both parents worrying about paying the bills for the basics of life like food and shelter; I doubt that any witnessed their father unemployed for long periods because there was no work; I doubt that they worried about getting a good university education. If they had, they would most assuredly think differently about it—being born poor and the suffering it entails.

Poverty in childhood marks you for life. The poor in America are worse off than the poor in Africa or Asia, Nobel laureate Angus Deaton points out above. Such is not an easy statement to accept, but nevertheless true. In the United States, a nation with great wealth, there is accompanying great poverty. The wealthy are presented as good and virturous; the poor as its polar opposite. What are we to make of it? What is its underlining message?

It is hard to understand how the United States, founded on Christian principles, which many Americans say they still follow and cherish, has become as it has become. Jesus himself spoke passionately about the poor and their place of importance in a future messianic kingdom (e.g., Matthew 5;3; Luke 1.46–55; Luke 12;33). His message is as well received today as it was then. 

Oh, they talk a good talk, and they squawk a good squawk. I do not mean here to be unfair to the birds; they are lovable creatures. One lives with us, a beautiful young male cockatiel. It is American Capitalism, unfeeling and unloving, to whom they bow down, to whom they bend the knee and to whom they serve as their god, which they view as noble and true. Since the second half of the 20th century, Christianity has been co-opted by capitalism as it is practiced and worshiped in America; and a few have gotten wealthy as a result.

As for what today’s kings, and what today presents itself as our rulers, the council of the wise, if you will, in democratic nations, and what they ought to do, I am reminded of the Book of Proverbs. The last chapter in fact contains such an admonition: “Open thy mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy” (Chapter 31; verse 9). Has not this always been the hope of the poor and despairing ones—for their cause to be judged righteously? Even as I write this, I do not think the poor will find any justice here on earth. Neither will anyone who is not wealthy.