Wednesday, September 26, 2012

America's Forgotten Poor

Scant attention has been paid to the record rise of poverty levels in America.

Click graphic above to see a detailed breakdown on poverty in the U.S. (Source: NPR)

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama and their campaigns have spent much of this election season tripping over themselves to appeal to all-important middle-class voters.  During the political conventions, Ann Romney spoke about how she and her husband once lived in a tiny apartment using an ironing board as a table.  She didn't note that they were living off of Mitt's investment income -- hey, he was the son of a multimillionaire governor -- while Mitt finished his studies.  Michelle Obama told a story about how when she began dating Barack his car was "rusted out" and had a hole in the door.  She skirted the fact that the pair met while working for a prestigious Chicago law firm.

The point here isn't to attack either candidate for their typical stretched "we're just like you" spiel, but to draw attention to the entire large segment of the populace that no one is overly concerned with winning over: the poor.  Over 15% of Americans, nearly 50 million people, live at or below the poverty line, defined as $23,000 for a family of four.  While much election-year rhetoric concerns the tax burden of the rich, or who is the real champion of the middle class, little more than lip service is paid to the lower rungs of our society.

The poor have been hit hard by the economic stagnation of the past few years. Having recently moved back to the relatively affluent Maryland suburbs of Washington D.C. where I grew up, I've been shocked to see here for the first time the ubiquitous presence of panhandlers and homeless men and women at highway ramps and strip mall entrances.  The numbers back up the anecdotal evidence that more people are hard-luck these days: in 2010, the poverty rate hit its highest mark since 1993, and it remains persistently high.  The number of food stamps recipients is up 76% in the past five years (26.3 million to 46.7 million).

Many people mistakenly assume that joblessness and extreme poverty is an issue tied to morality -- that alcohol and drug abuse, or having children out of wedlock, are the prime impediments to acquiring a decent-paying job.  While there are cases of personal irresponsibility, the poor in America also face a systemic disadvantage: a lack of adequately-paying jobs.  Per the Economic Policy Institute (where I interned in high school), half the jobs in this country pay less than $34,000 a year, and a quarter pay less than $23,000.  Poverty is not just a minority problem either.  Though blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans have a poverty rate three times that of whites, by number whites make up the greatest share of the poor.

Solving this long-running issue is complicated due to deep ideological divisions in this country.  Lyndon Johnson declared a "War on Poverty" in the 1960s, and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s famously countered that "poverty won" (not quite true -- though poverty rates remained high, malnutrition and disease among the poor did plunge sharply).  Welfare assistance today is a fraction of what it once was, due to huge cuts made to the program by the Clinton administration in the 1990s.  Food stamps and tax credits have been critical to helping the poor, especially during the last recession, but they are detested by conservatives for potentially fostering dependency.

Today, neither political party fully embraces the anti-poverty crusaders' role, to their detriment.  Moral and practical reasons dictate that we take care of the least in our society.  A massive investment in education and worker training is necessary.  In a globally competitive economy, it's silly to bemoan jobs being shipped overseas, when doing so allows those American companies to survive and thrive.  The outsourcing of low-cost, low-skill jobs means that the American economy will specialize in higher-paying, higher-skill jobs.  We must have the educated workforce that can take advantage of that, and make the U.S. a center of advanced manufacturing.

Poverty increasingly has a human face not limited to metropolitan cities or scarred manufacturing centers, but in middle America as well.  Hopefully a critical mass of the public is paying attention and will demand meaningful action.

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