Thursday, December 19, 2013

Poverty in America

A few things have been making me think about hunger and poverty in America. First, I've recently evaluated many appeals for charitable contributions and decided among them and written checks. This included several organizations that help homeless and hungry people, particularly our local food bank, social work organizations, and homeless shelter.

Also recently I've read a number of articles about the working poor people and also the unemployed in our country. For example, an article in the Washington Post about the relationship of poor diet and obesity in extremely poor people, "Too much of too little A diet fueled by food stamps is making South Texans obese but leaving them hungry."

One particularly interesting article in the Atlantic was "The Past and Future of America's Social Contract" by Josh Freedman and Michael Lind. The authors describe the historic progression from an American social contract beginning in the New Deal. For many years, employers provided a number of social services (especially health care and retirement income). We have moved on, say the authors, to a more modern "low-wage" social contract, in which workers earn little but are supposedly helped by lower-priced goods: often imported, often sold at Wal-Mart.

They write:
"It is true that tax credits and cheap goods have boosted the standard of living for otherwise impoverished workers. Yet, according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, which takes into account wage subsidies and additional costs like taxes and medical costs, almost 10 percent of the total working population still lives in poverty. This includes roughly 5 million Americans who work full-time, year-round. 
"A key reason for this is that the low-wage social contract does not do much to help families in the areas they need most. Clothing, food, and other items found at Wal-Mart might be cheap for low-wage workers. But other necessary services—health care, daycare, eldercare, and college—have simultaneously become less affordable and more important as most mothers work outside of the home and the wage premium for college remains high. In 1960, the average family spent about $12,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars on childcare, education, and healthcare over the course of 17 years raising a child. Four decades later, the average family spends almost $63,000 per child. Medical out-of-pocket expenses now push more people below the poverty line than tax credits can lift above it."
The authors believe that "we need to shift once again to a system more suited to the current economy and needs of workers and citizens." They believe that the government should supply the services that are essential and out of the reach of the poorest Americans, and suggest starting "by raising the federal minimum wage closer to a true living wage and expanding public early education, both of which are widely popular proposals."

Sadly, I don't see that our current government is likely to embark on a program of this sort. I see too much hostility to workers and poor people on the part of legislators -- in fact, too much contempt for the poor, the unemployed, and others who are simply unfortunate. Cuts in food assistance from the federal government are one of the worst insults, as there seems to be acceptance for the idea that poor people don't even deserve to eat.

Some of our politicians seem more heartless than the "let them eat cake" caricature of Marie Antoinette. My recent reading of Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution brought to mind a variety of parallels between modern times, especially in America, and various events in that era. I'm not sophisticated enough to write about such parallels, but my reading made me think about "aristocratic" attitudes towards poor people here. I have no real hope of things getting better. I'm aware that I should be writing upbeat things about the wonderful holiday season, but this is what's on my mind.

Note: I'm also posting this on my other blog,

1 comment:

Jens Zorn said...

Mae, thanks for your thoughtful essay. I wish I could disagree with your pessimistic conclusion, but reality intrudes. We have long believed that insurrection is just something ocurring in other countries, something one sees on TV news, but if the social divide continues to widen, we may see civil unrest in our own land.