Poverty in America: Bigger than ever and rapidly spreading.
So where is the anti-poverty agenda? What do our stalwart solons propose to do about this genuine economic, social, democratic, and spiritual crisis that confronts us? "Nothing," snap Republican leaders, who simply blame the poor, claiming they lack initiative and family morals. Democrats care, but they're mostly playing defense, trying to swat down the meanest efforts to hurt the poor. They also oppose (though sometimes half-heartedly) more cuts to the tattered safety net that's supposed to catch those who fall between the cracks.
But society's moral imperative to extend a helping hand to "the least" among us, in Jesus' New Testament term, cannot be fulfilled merely with balm, food, and clothing. Rather, our major focus ought to be on the cracks themselves.
A populist perception: People fall between the cracks because there are cracks.
More and more of them. You wouldn't put up with it in your home, nor should we let this structural damage spread through our national house. But there it is. While few in political office even want to discuss it, America's poverty numbers -- including the already poor, the near poor, and those rapidly tumbling down -- are disgraceful, made all the more so by the fact that we're living in the richest country in the world.
There is nothing "natural," inevitable, or inadvertent about this. For some 30 years, corporate and political powers have been deliberately, fiercely, and relentlessly battering the democratic pillars of our economy, creating a proliferation of cracks that have steadily crept into the center of our social structure. Then, in recent years, these power elites have turned their backs with calculated disregard as the cracks deepened into the very firmament of our economy, creating sinkholes that are not only swallowing "the least" of us, but most of us -- including large chunks of America's middle class.The count
The Census Bureau found that 31 million people lived beneath the poverty line in 2000. That was 11.3 percent of our people -- bad enough. But in the next decade (spurred by the Bush-Cheney regime of wage-busting corporatists and Koch-headed ideologues in Congress), the percentage moved steadily up, reaching 15.1 percent in 2010, or more than 46 million of us -- the highest number in the half-century the Bureau has been reporting poverty figures. This despite the fact that America's wealth grew astronomically in those same 10 years (yes, there was the Wall Street crash of 2007-08, but the Great Recession it caused officially ended in mid-2009, and more wealth than ever quickly began to be generated. Yet in 2010, another 2.6 million of us plummeted into poverty).
This reality was politically awkward for the plutocrats, so their congress critters, lobbyists, and front groups insisted on a new reality. Claiming that the official poverty stats were out of whack, they demanded that such non-cash benefits for poor people as food stamps, child tax credits, and school lunches be counted as income for them, thus statistically shrinking the number of folks who would be counted as poor. In a classic case of "be careful what you wish for" however, the Census tallyers agreed to include those non-cash benefits -- BUT, they also decided it was time to factor in previously ignored costs that whack the poor, including ever-growing outlays for health care, housing, taxes, utilities, commuting, and child care.
Using this more accurate "supplemental poverty measure," the 2010 count was redone and, sure enough, the old number was wrong. Instead of 46.2 million poor Americans, the recalibrated formula showed that 49.1 million of us were below the line that year -- 16.1 percent of our population.
The Bureau has since also completed its poverty computations for 2011, again using the improved method for the tally. Voila -- the ranks of the poor grew by another 600,000 of our fellow citizens that year, led by a spike in the number of working people who had been reduced to poverty wages. Included in this latest official count are 18.1 percent of America's children and 15.5 percent of all working adults.
The forces shoving down the incomes of the great majority in our country are not abating, so the deluge of new inductees into poverty continues. Already, the USofA has crossed an embarrassing threshold of economic infamy: 50 million poor people. "Poor" means they are trying to make ends meet on $11,000 or less a year for an individual, $15,000 a year for a single mom with one child, and $23,000 for a family of four. Fifty million Americans! That's literally a nation of poverty in our midst -- roughly equivalent to the entire population of South Korea.
Then add 51 million additional Americans classified as "near poor" -- an individual, for example, making between $11,000 and $17,000 a year (perhaps one of the "associates" stocking shelves at your local Walmart or serving you at Pizza Hut). In all, more than 100 million of our people -- one out of three of us -- are either poor or perched precariously on the brink of that abyss. By the way, more than half of today's near poor landed there from higher income levels -- people who had a better paying job that was moved offshore or downsized, uninsured families suddenly zapped by a major medical cost, or recent college grads saddled with debt and unable to find a higher-paying job in the field of their degree, so now they're plopped behind a car rental counter or espresso machine and paid a near-poverty wage.Abandoning the poor
With so many Americans caught in the hellish vortex of low wages, joblessness, and poverty, you might assume that our leaders would respond with an urgent effort to lift them up -- not out of compassion, but out of respect for what they could be contributing. In other words, just as the poor need us, we need them -- our society urgently needs the intellect, creativity, and productivity those millions have within them.
But that would require actual leadership. Instead, those in power today are responding with a toxic blend of ignorance, indifference, contempt, and bullshit. For instance, ponder the thinking of Andre Bauer, South Carolina's former lieutenant governor. In 2010, he shared this uplifting ethic, supposedly taught by grandmother: "She told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or person ample food supply... You've got to curtail that type of behavior."
Call Andre an ick, but he's only mouthing the collective wisdom of today's far-right Republican Party. Indeed, this year, the party is unabashedly and aggressively espousing a policy of curtailing the eating behavior of low-income human animals. In particular it's working to gut the enormously successful food stamp program, claiming that it's an out-of-control government entitlement that is neither affordable nor needed. Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal went after it in a March article bearing this headline: "Use of Food Stamps Swells Even as Economy Improves." Hey, who needs food stamps in good times?
Can Rupert even spell o-b-t-u-s-e? As The Atlantic magazine's Jordan Weissman wrote, "Repeat after me: There are record numbers of Americans on food stamps today because there are record numbers of Americans in poverty."
Still, such boneheads as the GOP's budget sorcerer, Paul Ryan, are out to shred food stamps: His "budget blueprint," adopted by the House in March would cut $125 billion (and 13 million poor people -- nearly half of them children) out of the program during the next five years.