Tag Archives: poverty

File Under “Kick ‘Em When They’re Down”

A few days ago, a neighbor shared a blog post by a friend of hers.

The post referenced a recent report by the United Nations, accusing the Trump Administration of intentionally making life more difficult for poor Americans while taking steps to enrich the already privileged. I had seen an article on the report in the Guardian, but so far as I–and the author of this blog– know, that was the only news source that addressed it.

Were it not for the source, it would hardly be news to learn that the United States can’t take care of its most needy—that it may be the richest country, but it is also increasingly, appallingly, unequal in how its wealth and opportunities are shared. When the various dimensions of human security are examined, critics have long noted that the US falls short, whether in treatment of children, poverty rates, income gaps between rich and poor, or even life expectancy. All this has been amply documented in annual reports of the United Nations Development Programme (http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/2016_human_development_report.pdf), which I’ve discussed in previous blogs (#9 for example).

But now comes an update from a distinguished international legal scholar who is the United Nations special rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights. Philip Alston visited several deep pockets of poverty, from Los Angeles to West Virginia and Detroit to Puerto Rico, at the end of 2017. His report (UN General Assembly Doc. A/HRC/38/33/Add.1, May 4, 2018) is a devastating indictment of the government that underscores the large and growing contradictions between the American Dream and reality. Alston told The Guardian that Trump’s policies amount to “ a systematic attack on America’s welfare program that is undermining the social safety net for those who can’t cope on their own. Once you start removing any sense of government commitment, you quickly move into cruelty.”

The report acknowledges that previous administrations haven’t distinguished themselves by their concern for these inequities, but quotes Alston to the effect that the Trump Administration has “deliberately targeted the most vulnerable in society, kicking away every ladder of social wellbeing in order to serve Trump’s rich supporters and his alt-right agenda”.

In other words, it’s not that this government can’t take care of the poor. It won’t. It has no interest in doing so.

The blogger, Mel Gurtov, provides examples of the measures that Alston identified as particularly onerous to the most vulnerable:

• Debasing civil society: Supporting limits on voting rights with specious arguments about voter fraud and “covert disenfranchisement” such as gerrymandering and various ID requirements.
• Giving huge tax breaks to millionaires and big corporations while about 40 million people live below the poverty line—among them, 23.8 million considered in extreme or absolute poverty. The richest 1 percent of Americans now account for 20 percent of national income, double the percentage in 1980. “The proposed tax reform package stakes out America’s bid to become the most unequal society in the world,” says Alston in a separate statement (www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=22533).
• Putting new limits on basic anti-poverty measures such as work requirements for welfare, food stamps, subsidized housing, health insurance, and veterans’ benefits.
• Limiting opportunity: “The United States now has one of the lowest rates of intergenerational social mobility of any of the rich countries. . . . The equality of opportunity, which is so prized in theory, is in practice a myth, especially for minorities and women, but also for many middle-class White workers.”
• Promoting racist stereotypes that seek to stigmatize non-whites as being mainly poor, lazy, and unworthy of uplifting.
• Tolerating the highest rate of infant mortality, the highest rate of youth poverty, and the highest income inequality among all rich countries.*
• Treating Puerto Rico as a colony, and imposing fiscal discipline that fails to take into account people’s need of social protection. (The mayor of San Juan says it all: Trump’s , total neglect has to be called [out]. The United Nations says that when people are denied the right to access to basic human services — like electric power, like water, like food, like appropriate medical care — that it is a violation of human rights.”)

We’ve gone from a war on poverty to a war on the impoverished.

We’ve become a country without compassion, where the shameless and greedy eat bon bons and watch the poor scramble for crumbs. Our cruelty, together with the President’s erratic and embarrassingly ignorant behavior, has squandered America’s claim to any vestige of continued moral authority.

How long can this go on before it becomes irreversible?

Alice–Updated, Slipping Further Behind

Regular readers of this blog have met ALICE before. ALICE is an acronym standing for “Asset limited, income constrained, employed.” That last word–employed–is important; it puts the lie to the widespread fiction that struggling Americans just need to work, or work harder.

The Association of United Ways issued the original ALICE report in 2014, updated it in 2016, and have now produced data for 2018. It isn’t pretty.

For those who haven’t met ALICE, the report describes her:

ALICE is your child care worker, your parent on Social Security, the cashier at your supermarket, the gas attendant, the salesperson at your big box store, your waitress, a home health aide, an office clerk. ALICE cannot always pay the bills, has little or nothing in savings, and is forced to make tough choices such as deciding between quality child care or paying the rent. One unexpected car repair or medical bill can push these financially strapped families over the edge.

As the researchers point out, traditional measures of poverty don’t capture the real picture–the number of people who are struggling financially because the actual cost of life’s necessities where they live is more than they earn.

Indiana, for example, has 2,530,581 households. Thirteen and a half percent of those households fall below the official poverty line–but another 25.2% fall between the poverty line and the ALICE threshold. That’s 38.7% of Hoosiers who face a constant, debilitating struggle for economic survival.

The Indianapolis Business Journal (subscription required) recently began a series it is calling “One City, Worlds Apart” focusing on the dimensions of that struggle and the consequences for the city as a whole.

The number of Indianapolis residents living in poverty rose from 11.8 percent in 2000 to 21.3 percent in 2015 — an increase of more than 85,000 people. During that same period, the city’s population only grew 90,000.

About 30 percent of Indianapolis children lived in poverty in 2015, a particularly worrisome finding, because recent research has found that growing up in impoverished homes has a quantifiably negative effect on children’s cognitive ability.

The stress experienced by impoverished and ALICE families isn’t just financial: struggling people live in poorer neighborhoods that are less safe and less healthy. They lack the time and resources that permit other citizens to participate in civic and political life–and as a result, their voices aren’t heard–or their needs considered– in most public policy debates.

As the ALICE reports have emphasized, ALICE folks are in large part the workers that we more privileged folks rely upon for a multitude of essential services. Evidently, we aren’t willing to pay a living wage to the people who provide those services. (There’s a parallel here with our unwillingness to pay taxes adequate to support the public services we demand.)

The irony is, we pay in other ways. As the ALICE reports and the  Business Journal series document, there are significant social costs to a system that leaves so many hard-working people behind.

Dismissing the struggle of ALICE families as a consequence of laziness or lack of ambition is a sign of moral obtuseness–when it isn’t intentionally self-serving. When you tell people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, you should probably check to see if they have any boots.

 

It’s Going To Get Uglier

Last weekend, my husband and I attended the Phoenix Theatre’s presentation of Sweat, a prize-winning play based upon an episode of union-busting and outsourcing that took place some years ago in Reading, Pennsylvania. As with all Phoenix productions, the acting was superb, and the set evocative. But it was the play’s message that really resonated.

As workers in the local factories lost their jobs, social bonds frayed. Self-esteem suffered. Longstanding interracial friendships surrendered to suspicions that promotions had been awarded on the basis of “diversity” rather than merit. As with all powerful art, the play illuminated a human truth: in times of economic and/or social uncertainty–especially when  livelihoods are threatened– people turn on each other.

Political scientists have varying explanations for the election of Donald Trump, but those explanations all include, to varying degrees, economic insecurity and racial resentment. A significant number of Americans are struggling to put food on the table. Automation is threatening the jobs of many others. The pace of social and technological change can seem dizzying. And rather than working to tackle these and other problems, the President and his henchmen are telling us to blame the Other: immigrants, Muslims, minorities.

A recent headline from the Guardian tells us that anti-Semitic incidents soared in 2017.

Antisemitic incidents in the US surged 57% in 2017, the Anti-Defamation League said on Tuesday, the largest year-on-year increase since the Jewish civil rights group began collecting data in 1979.

Close to 2,000 cases of harassment, vandalism and physical assault were recorded,

Another report tells us that we are in danger of reversing the civil rights advances of the last fifty years.

Civil rights gains of the past half-century have stalled or in some areas gone into reverse, according to a report marking the 50th anniversary of the landmark Kerner Commission.

Child poverty has increased, schools have become resegregated and white supremacists are becoming emboldened and more violent, the study says…..

Fred Harris, the last surviving member of the Kerner Commission, told Tuesday’s conference at George Washington University: “We made progress on virtually every aspect of race and poverty for nearly a decade after the Kerner report and then that progress slowed, then stopped and in many ways was reversed, so that today racial and ethnic discrimination is again worsening. We are resegregating our cities and our schools, condemning millions of kids to inferior education and taking away their real possibility of getting out of poverty.”

Harris, a former Democratic senator from Oklahoma and co-editor of the new report, added: “There are millions more poor people today than there were then. There’s greater child poverty; poverty’s harder to get out of. More poor people are in deep poverty than was true 50 years ago and income inequality is worse now and worsening.”

Last week, the Supreme Court heard a case that is very likely to eviscerate public-sector unions–the culmination of a decades-long, largely successful effort by the Koch brothers and their allies in the GOP to destroy workers’ ability to bargain. It is an effort that has gone hand-in-hand with their consistent and very effective attack on government programs that help needy Americans.

As Sweat vividly illustrated, poverty and powerlessness beget bigotry and social discord.

If voters don’t turn this country around in November, America will illustrate something else–Hobbes’ description of life outside society: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

 

 

 

 

 

Normalizing Segregation

George Wallace, the former Governor of Alabama,  is most remembered for his defiant opposition to school integration, and his statement “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

Reading about his efforts today, we tend to assign him to the wrong side of history and dismiss him, but I’m beginning to worry  that his statement was more predictive than defiant.

A few days ago, I blogged about some illuminating, if troubling, research into the effects of geography on social attitudes. I’m only a few chapters into The Space Between Us, but it has already confirmed what most of thoughtful people realize: the more physically segregated different populations are, the more wary and distrustful of each other they are likely to be.

And let’s face it; America remains segregated. Especially when it comes to blacks and whites, we worship separately, we live in different city neighborhoods, and sixty-four years after Brown v. Board of Education, our children still attend different schools. The institutional arrangements may have changed, but in far too many cases, the results have not.

A recent Brookings Institution report describes how the charter school movement–despite its best intentions–is accommodating itself to racial segregation.

Charter schools didn’t create segregation, but the charter school movement isn’t helping to end it either.

When Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We must never adjust ourselves to racial segregation,” he wasn’t suggesting that black kids need white kids and teachers in the classroom with them to learn. King was acutely aware that segregation sustains racial inequality in schools and other institutions. Education reform without an explicit attempt to dismantle the sources of inequality isn’t a moon shot toward justice; it is simply a maladjustment to injustice.

Figures available for the 2014-2015 school year disclose that over a thousand of the nation’s 6,747 charter schools had minority enrollment of at least 99 percent.

In the all-charter district of New Orleans… virtually no (less than one percent) white students attend schools that have earned a “D” or “F” performance rating. But 77 percent of white students are enrolled in “A-” and “B-” rated schools, according to a new report by non-profit advocacy group Urban League of Louisiana. It is unthinkable that this situation would be tolerated if the students’ races were reversed. It is clear that segregation, and who gets a quality choice, matters.

In all fairness, the charters are simply replicating–rather than remedying–the separate but definitely not equal status of most public systems.

The average public school is 2.6 percent less white, 1.8 percent more black, 0.9 percent more Hispanic, and 0.3 percent more Asian than its surrounding neighborhood,” according to the study. No surprise there.

The segregated state of our schools helps maintain the inequitable funding that determines families’ educational options. When the government-backed Home Owner’s Loan Corporation developed color-coded maps to sort out who could receive mortgage lending, blacks who lived in the red sections of the map were not given loans. And of course, the most well-resourced schools just happen to be located in the most expensive neighborhoods.

Proponents of charter schools argue that they are actually disrupting school districts that were created to be discriminatory, and that their availability improves poor parents’ options. As the Brookings report concedes, providing children who live in segregated neighborhoods a quality education is an excellent goal (although as the research continues to show, it’s a goal as elusive for most charters as it is for too many public schools–charters offer no magic bullet).

Real reform will require us to pay attention to the sources of educational inequity–and that means addressing social ills like poverty and residential segregation. As the Brookings report put it,

In many cases, school district lines are the more potent Confederate monuments that we still need to take down.

 

A Poverty of Understanding

Pundits and scholars and public officials spend considerable time trying to determine the causes of poverty and advocating measures to alleviate it.

In contrast, they spend very little time examining public perceptions of those causes, and less still inquiring into the demographics of those holding very different opinions about the causes (and thus the cures) for poverty. But a recent survey did just that:

Which is generally more often to blame if a person is poor: lack of effort on their own part, or difficult circumstances beyond their control?

The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation asked 1,686 American adults to answer that question — and found that religion is a significant predictor of how Americans perceive poverty.

Christians, especially white evangelical Christians, are much more likely than non-Christians to view poverty as the result of individual failings.

Forty-six percent of all Christians said that a lack of effort is generally to blame for a person’s poverty; in comparison, only 29 percent of non-Christians attributed poverty to inadequate effort by the individual.

The survey found an even wider gulf between adherents of different Christian denominations: 53 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 50 percent of Catholics blamed lack of effort, while 45 percent blamed circumstances. Americans who are atheist, agnostic or claimed no particular affiliation responded– by an impressive margin of 65 to 31 percent– that difficult circumstances are more to blame for poverty than lack of effort.

This data is not just of academic interest; it is politically consequential. Not surprisingly, the partisan divide is sharp: Among Democrats, 26 percent blamed a lack of effort and 72 percent blamed circumstances. Among Republicans, 63 percent blamed lack of effort and 32 percent blamed circumstances. And race mattered, too: Just 32 percent of black Christians blamed lack of effort, compared to 64 percent who blamed circumstances.

Although the Post’s article didn’t refer to it, these opinions reflect the continuing cultural influence of Calvinism, which taught that God had decided who would be saved or damned before the beginning of history, and that this decision would not be affected by how human beings behaved during their lives. Furthermore, although you could never be sure who the elect were, it was widely believed that earthly material success was a sign of God’s favor and signaled “elect” status. Whether or not this belief can fairly be attributed to Calvin himself, it was firmly ensconced in the Puritans’ popular understanding of the doctrine of predestination.

Over time, as the presumed connection between wealth and elect status fostered by Calvinism became part of American culture, it influenced today’s common belief that poverty indicates moral deficit and wealth is a marker of merit. Those attitudes, together with America’s emphasis on individualism and personal responsibility, continue to overshadow recognition of the important role played by public policies and systemic influences.

These survey results illuminate the dilemma for public policy: if people are poor because minimum wage levels facilitate exploitation, or because automation is eliminating jobs, or because of inadequacies in America’s social safety net, the policies to be pursued will look very different from policies based upon a belief that poverty is a result of personal moral failure.

Doctors can’t decide what medicine to prescribe if they don’t know what ails you. Lawmakers can’t address economic disparities between the rich and the rest, or lessen the incidence of poverty, if they don’t understand the underlying reasons for economic hardship.

Christian charity is all well and good, but Christian economic realism would be a lot better.