Poverty in the United States
The Census Bureau reports that about 13% of the US population lived in poverty in 2017. The recovery from the 2008 recession has improved economic conditions for many Americans but has not touched the poor. There are as many poor people today as there were 10 years ago.
The White House denies this. They criticize the methodology used by the Census Bureau. The way they calculate poverty only 3% of Americans are poor. But most economists and statistician do not accept that conservative view of poverty.
Who are the poor? Conservatives try to tell us that people live in poverty because they are unwilling to work. Hence there is a big push to deny any kind of assistance to citizens who do not go to school or have a job. But this is sheer prejudice. 35% of the poor are children, 25% have jobs, often more than one. 10% are disabled, another 10% are senior citizens. 8% of the poor are caregivers – they cannot go out and work because they are needed to care for children, or a sick, or elderly, or disabled family member. 3% have taken early retirement, 7% are enrolled in school. There remain 3% who are not working. The other 97% are poor because they are prevented from working by their age, their occupation (such as caregivers), or their disabilities. A quarter of the poor do work, another 7% are students.
These official numbers, moreover, ignore some important additional categories. In the United States there are more than 2 million people in prison. They and often their families are unable to make a decent living. To that we must add a significant number of undocumented workers who earn less than the legal minimum wage. Their employers can pay them illegally low wages because the undocumented will not complain about their mistreatment.
It is worth noting that 25% of the poor are working but their wages are so low that they do not have enough money to pay for rent and food and other necessities. By some estimates, 25% of all workers in the US earn less than $10 an hour. Such low wages are clearly one important cause of the continued poverty of our fellow citizens.
Different sources will provide somewhat different numbersfor different categories of poverty but the general message is the same: poverty is very significant in our country and, even in a growing economy, the percentage of poor people remains the same, year in, year out.
These facts are clearly scandalous. Poverty in the United States is much more serious than in other developed countries. The United States is not only the richest country in the world but also the developed country with the highest poverty rate. It is also the poorest country among the Western capitalist countries.
It is not difficult to see what needs to be done to drastically lower the rate of poverty. The federal minimum wage needs to be raised to $15 or $20 an hour. We need to seriously reduce the number of prisoners and make sure that families of prisoners are taken care of. Welfare payments must become more generous. We must make sure that everyone, without exception, has enough food, a decent living space, and access to healthcare and education.
These are the initial steps that we must take but there is tremendous opposition against those not only in the White House but across all of America. The poor are the targets of harsh prejudice. They get blamed for their own poverty. They are said to be poor because they refuse to do a day’s work, because they are self indulgent, and lack basic skills. The poor are thought to be largely teenage (black) women who have children at 14 and 15 years of age. They are thought to be sexually licentious--an inclination inherited from the African ancestors of several hundred years ago.
Some of these accusations are clearly ridiculous and others, as we have already seen, false and unjust. The poverty rate of Black and Hispanic Americans is higher than that of Whites. But the white population in the US is much larger than the black and hispanic population. Almost 59 million Hispanics are poor, as are 42 million Black Americans. 195 million of Whites live in poverty-- more than twice the number of Hispanic and African-Americans poor. If you encounter a poor person the chance is one in two that you meet a White person.
Why do prejudices against continue to be so powerful? That question has different answers for different portions of our population.
Our leaders, from the White House on down, believe, like most Americans, that a good life is a successful life. Success they define as making lots of money. By those standards, the poor are complete failures and are therefore deserving of nothing more than contempt. The chief policymakers in America, accordingly, look down on the poor and never hesitate to disparage them.
But the people in charge not only have no respect for the poor they actively hate them. Congress is constantly considering legislation to tear the social safety net, to put stricter limits on who is eligible for food or rent aid. Elected representatives compete with each other for proposing further inroads in the already limited support for the poor.
Conservatives keep talking about the blessings of capitalism, of the so-called "free market." They believe that the economy should not be regulated by the government. This amounts to saying that unfettered capitalism without any regulations to protect consumers or workers would be to everybody's advantage. The fact is, however, that even a regulated capitalism, as we have it, leaves more than 10% of the population living in poverty. Capitalism is not in everybody's interest. It leaves significant number of citizens in dire poverty. The existence of large numbers of poor people in what we like to call "the richest country in the world"show that capitalism is not the boon our richest fellow Americans believe it is. The poor in America stand as an indisputable proof of the inadequacies of capitalism.
Rich capitalists, like Donald Trump, hate the poor for that reason: they constitute a living refutation of the quasi-religion of the free market.
The hatred of the poor has a large component of racism. Different sections of the population have different reasons for perpetuating it. Middle-class Americans have failed to get rich; they just get by. Given the prevailing idea that getting rich is the mark of success, the middle class is not successful. They can console themselves over that failure by distinguishing their own work ethic from the, actually mythical, laziness of the poor.
The lower middle class, a section on the population always in danger of descending into actual poverty, can reassure itself that it will not end up genuinely poor by trotting out the myth of the lazy poor. They, the lower middle class, work hard. They faithfully go to the job every day whbere they are underpaid. They are virtuous, they are not like the poor, lazy and without skills. So they don't, they think, have to worry about being really poor-- until the next recession when they face real, grinding poverty.
Different sections of the population have different reasons for subscribing to the mythology of the poor as indolent, unable to control themselves, lacking basic skills. They all share the same set of values that wealth is the sign of success. One has lived one's life well if one has accumulated lots of money and property.
That is the ethic that goes with capitalism. The goal in life should be making more money than the next guy. Little value is placed on integrity, on being a loyal life partner or friend, on being a good parent or child to those parents. Public service, loyalty to one's country is given lip service but do not really count. Its all about being rich, owning a bigger house, a vacation home at the shore, a big cabin cruiser, etc.
America's relationship to its poor not only shows that capitalism is a failure as an economic system but, even more importantly, it is a failure as the basis of our national ethic and our ideas of what makes human lives good lives and lives worth living.