Poverty In America

In Columns, Features, Pieces to Peter's Puzzling World by Peter Webster

How do we reduce poverty in America? Now, that is a question. Poverty isn’t going away by itself. The Census says reports that 45 million Americans don’t have health insurance.

We don’t really know how many homeless are in this country. The number of children living in poverty is much too great for a nation of our wealth.

In fact, the number of people living below
the poverty level is disgraceful. Too many working people are living paycheck to paycheck, one paycheck away from financial disaster and homelessness.

Even members of the middle class find themselves playing credit-card roulette. Working people not only can’t afford to buy homes, they can barely afford to rent them.

Poverty is a political situation, as well as a simple lack of capital-the poor are sometimes called the “asset challenged.” In American society, “democracy” as it is presented to us, access to government is dependent on money.

Money takes people to power. The poor are powerless. Maybe this is not the real-spiritual-power, but certainly power as it exists in society.

Politicians need money to be elected and reelected.

Our elected representatives may listen to the poor, but they’re listening more to people with money. This is so well understood in America that it isn’t even mentioned-particularly by groups that work to reduce poverty.

Many of these groups are non-profit organizations and they don’t want to jeopardize their non-profit status. So, for several reasons, poverty isn’t going to go
away because of government action.

Poverty won’t go away of its own volition, and as things are, the government isn’t going to do anything about it. There’s an old-time social Darwinist philosophy at work in the minds of many people: if people are poor, it’s their own fault. We don’t need to bother with them. The sooner they disappear, the better. Or, at least, the poor will always be with us. Why bother?

I’m involved with a non-profit that’s trying to reduce poverty on a region basis. But, because non-profits, by law, can’t be political, the group tries to fight poverty without making too many waves. The comfortable are not to be disturbed. There are other reasons for this, as well-one of the terms used is “partnering.” This means forming alliances with groups that aren’t, normally, too concerned with poverty.

Businesses, contractors,banks-the groups that do hold political power. We attempt to convince these organizations that it is good public relations to do this. We see similar efforts all the time, like when Exxon puts on commercials showing us how concerned they are with the environment.

Partnering is done in hopes there will be job offers, cheaper housing, pay raises, and so on. I don’t think that’s very realistic; at least, it’s never ever happened before.

Nobody has ever willingly given up political power-and, I bet, ever will.

There are two ways to deal with poverty: exceptionalism, which says that the poor are exceptions to the “normal” American system. This is the current choice of many, if not most, organizations, and it has been the traditional way for at least the last forty years.

Social workers look at the poor and see what it is they lack, other than money. The poor lack skills like good grammar, job skills, the know-how to get good housing(or how to maintain it), they don’t know how to get medical care, and so on.

The problem is defined by deficits of the poor. They contain the problem. The remedy is to teach them good English, educate them in job applications (so they’ll get better paying jobs), provide remedial education, teach them, teach them, teach them-help them. They just need to be helped.

The sociologists are learned; the poor are unlearned; the sociologists know what the problems are.

The other theory is one of universalism;the economic system itself has built-in inequities. Here’s a quote, from an early ’70s book on poverty and social work:

“define the differences as the cause of the problem itself… Look sympathetically at those who ‘have’ the problem in question, to separate them out and define them in some way as a special group, a group that
is different from the population in general…that difference is in itself hampering and maladaptive. The Different Ones are seen as less competent,less skilled, less knowing-in short, less human.”

That’s pretty scary, right there. That viewpoint enables the professionals-and politicians, by the way-to see the poor themselves as the cause of the inequalities in society-and it helps the professionals
feel good about themselves and what they’re doing.

But, from a universalist point of view, it’s not the poor folks’ fault. The exceptionalists believe the norms in American society are givens; the way things are supposed to be: solid nuclear family life, economic self-sufficiency, good housing…

Therefore, if people aren’t living that way, they aren’t normal…because everyone who is “normal” is living the good life.

But we know that the rich benefit from the poor. Who else will do their yard work, wash their floors and their cars, bus the tables in the nice restaurants? Who else will make places show good profits? But they aren’t the slum-lords (and slum-ladies, don’t want to be sexist).

How much do the social workers make compared to the lowest 5% of the economic strata?

And, does Bill Gates or the Bush family really need all that money? Does Katie Couric? Our system subsizes low-wage jobs-by food-stamps, medicaid, subsidized housing (or what there is of it!)-and poverty-producing programs. So Wal-Mart gives a lot of people jobs. The jobs don’t pay a living wage-definitely not a decent wage.

The middle class makes up for the low-pay-via taxpayer supported food stamps and other social service which of course means the middle-class’s resentments can be played upon…poor people.

The very wealthy don’t pay much in taxes, anymore. Neither do the corporations. Maybe we should tax the stock market, since every time a bunch of people get laid off from an industry the stock value goes up….

But, if the community-action teams-like the one I work with- start talking about that…problems. Non-profits cannot engage in any political activity; my suggestion that we would do better at fighting poverty by hiring a lobbyist in the capital was not well-received. Didn’t I know the rules?

Yes, I do know the rules. And I want to change them.

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