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General News    H4'ed 7/16/18

Tomgram: Rajan Menon, The Wages of Poverty in America

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: I suggest that, in conjunction with Rajan Menon's powerful piece on American poverty today, any of you who missed Beverly Gologorsky's vivid TD post, "What Does Poverty Feel Like?," should check it out and then pick up a copy of her stunning new Dispatch Books novel, Every Body Has a Story, which focuses on what it felt like for those hit by the Great Recession. Of it, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Elizabeth Strout says, "Your heart might be ripped out by this book, but it will get placed back inside with a larger capacity to love and beat on -- what a book, indeed!" Thanks to Haymarket Books, TD readers can still purchase Gologorsky's novel at half-price by clicking here. Tom]

In these years, much attention has been paid to the rise of the national security state and little indeed to what TomDispatch regular Rajan Menon calls the national (in)security state. The Trump administration and a Republican Congress have, of course, given a remarkable gift, a tax "reform" bill, to the already fabulously wealthy and are now hard at work slashing government funds for those in need. In addition, they are once again trying to cripple medical care for ordinary Americans by going after the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) -- "halting billions of dollars in annual payments required under the law to even out the cost to insurers whose customers need expensive medical services." Having vastly increased future budget deficits with that tax bill, Republicans in Congress are now promising to solve the problem by going after Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. And keep in mind that this is already a country in which three men (Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett) have as much wealth as the bottom half of society, while inequality has reached Gilded Age levels with more to come.

As it happens, Philip Alston, United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, recently paid some rare attention to American inequality in an up-close-and-personal way. He took a tour of poverty zones in the richest nation on the planet, some within sight of soaring scenes of incredible wealth. In the process, he grimly recorded the rise of extreme poverty (particularly among the young). Here's just a taste of what he found: "A shockingly high number of children in the U.S. live in poverty. In 2016, 18% of children -- some 13.3 million -- were living in poverty, with children comprising 32.6% of all people in poverty. Child poverty rates are highest in the southern states, with Mississippi [and] New Mexico at 30% and Louisiana at 29%." Note that, in part as a response to Alston's report -- how dare he focus on poverty and human rights in America! -- the Trump administration recently withdrew from the U.N. Human Rights Council.

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Today, Rajan Menon explores what might be thought of as the deep state of national (in)security in America. It's a sordid story and, in the age of Trump, it's undoubtedly just the preface to a tragic history still to come. Tom

National (In)Security
In the United States of Inequality
By Rajan Menon

So effectively has the Beltway establishment captured the concept of national security that, for most of us, it automatically conjures up images of terrorist groups, cyber warriors, or "rogue states." To ward off such foes, the United States maintains a historically unprecedented constellation of military bases abroad and, since 9/11, has waged wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere that have gobbled up nearly $4.8 trillion. The 2018 Pentagon budget already totals $647 billion -- four times what China, second in global military spending, shells out and more than the next 12 countries combined, seven of them American allies. For good measure, Donald Trump has added an additional $200 billion to projected defense expenditures through 2019.

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Yet to hear the hawks tell it, the United States has never been less secure. So much for bang for the buck.

For millions of Americans, however, the greatest threat to their day-to-day security isn't terrorism or North Korea, Iran, Russia, or China. It's internal -- and economic. That's particularly true for the 12.7% of Americans (43.1 million of them) classified as poor by the government's criteria: an income below $12,140 for a one-person household, $16,460 for a family of two, and so on... until you get to the princely sum of $42,380 for a family of eight.

Savings aren't much help either: a third of Americans have no savings at all and another third have less than $1,000 in the bank. Little wonder that families struggling to cover the cost of food alone increased from 11% (36 million) in 2007 to 14% (48 million) in 2014.

The Working Poor

Unemployment can certainly contribute to being poor, but millions of Americans endure poverty when they have full-time jobs or even hold down more than one job. The latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that there are 8.6 million "working poor," defined by the government as people who live below the poverty line despite being employed at least 27 weeks a year. Their economic insecurity doesn't register in our society, partly because working and being poor don't seem to go together in the minds of many Americans -- and unemployment has fallen reasonably steadily. After approaching 10% in 2009, it's now at only 4%.

Help from the government? Bill Clinton's 1996 welfare "reform" program, concocted in partnership with congressional Republicans, imposed time limits on government assistance, while tightening eligibility criteria for it. So, as Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer show in their disturbing book, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, many who desperately need help don't even bother to apply. And things will only get worse in the age of Trump. His 2019 budget includes deep cuts in a raft of anti-poverty programs.

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Anyone seeking a visceral sense of the hardships such Americans endure should read Barbara Ehrenreich's 2001 book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. It's a gripping account of what she learned when, posing as a "homemaker" with no special skills, she worked for two years in various low-wage jobs, relying solely on her earnings to support herself. The book brims with stories about people who had jobs but, out of necessity, slept in rent-by-the-week fleabag motels, flophouses, or even in their cars, subsisting on vending machine snacks for lunch, hot dogs and instant noodles for dinner, and forgoing basic dental care or health checkups. Those who managed to get permanent housing would choose poor, low-rent neighborhoods close to work because they often couldn't afford a car. To maintain even such a barebones lifestyle, many worked more than one job.

Though politicians prattle on about how times have changed for the better, Ehrenreich's book still provides a remarkably accurate picture of America's working poor. Over the past decade the proportion of people who exhausted their monthly paychecks just to pay for life's essentials actually increased from 31% to 38%. In 2013, 71% of the families that had children and used food pantries run by Feeding America, the largest private organization helping the hungry, included at least one person who had worked during the previous year. And in America's big cities, chiefly because of a widening gap between rent and wages, thousands of working poor remain homeless, sleeping in shelters, on the streets, or in their vehicles, sometimes along with their families. In New York City, no outlier when it comes to homelessness among the working poor, in a third of the families with children that use homeless shelters at least one adult held a job.

The Wages of Poverty

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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