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Poverty in America, the Old and the New

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Message Mary Finneran

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Catholic Campaign for Human Development has declared January to be Poverty Poverty in America Awareness Month.  This inspired me and a group of my friends, although not all Catholic, or practicing, to write a series of essays for different websites ( for one).

I am not greatly impoverished myself, although my friends range from my economic state to homeless. I am a member of the working class (an art teacher) who has a mortgaged (albeit "handy-man-special) house and a husband who works as a retail clerk in an antiques store; I have been extremely poor in the past, and was very lucky to be able to get a decent enough job to place me in a situation where we’re more than one paycheck from disaster, possibly even two. With that disclaimer as to my lack of credentials, I'd like to say some things regarding the old and new poverty.

Poverty is as old as money, older than feudalism, as old as "civilization". A society with any base in a class system necessitates a "lower class" (think about how elitist that term is in and of itself, "lower" class "middle" class, (monkey in the middle?) "upper class," "ruling class," oh how lovely :( ) When we talk about old poverty vs. new poverty in American society we have to recognize that the source of both is the same, although many who call themselves the "new" poor don't qualify as yet according to the statistics. The true new poverty is no different, and with the numbers of the poor growing, many people are starting to realize that the "old poor" paradigm of extreme poverty and homelessness: addiction, alcoholism, and mental illness, is just not that prevalent, and not significantly different from society as a whole. This will especially become clear as more join the ranks of the extreme poor and recognize none of those stigmas within themselves.

As the "newly" poor start to realize that poor is poor is poor, and as more become poverty stricken and associated with truly poor people as friends and family members start having severe problems, hopefully, more of a call will go out to help the "old" poor, as well as the "new", by taking a look at the root causes of poverty: extreme and egregious economic imbalance and an immediate need to supply housing.

A good friend of mine wrote the following to me in discussing this issue:

“The history of the human race IS the history of the poor. It is not so much that it is hidden - it can be found all over the place right out in plain view - it is that we are led to look in the wrong places and are distracted and deceived. We are led to think that it is the story of the big people that matters, the wealthy and powerful.

"You will rarely go wrong if every time you hear a story about what happened, describing what the "important" people did, if you immediately assume that the story has been hijacked and perverted and distorted to serve the needs and desires of the wealthy and powerful few. Ask yourself this: "OK, which poor people actually accomplished these things that the upper class is claiming as their own?"

Further evidence to these wise words is just how the true history is being shortchanged, from Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen:

p. 206 “Nothing that textbooks discuss--not even strikes--is ever anchored in any analysis of social class. This amounts to delivering the footnotes instead of the lecture! Half of the eighteen high school American history textbooks I examined contain no index listing at all for social class, social stratification, class structure, income distribution, inequality, or any conceivably related topic. Not one book lists upper class or lower class. Three list middle class, but only to assure students that America is a middle-class country. "Except for slaves, most of the colonists were members of the 'middling ranks,'" says Land of Promise, and nails home the point that we are a middle-class country by asking students to "describe three 'middle-class' values that united free Americans of all classes." Several of the textbooks note the explosion of middle-class suburbs after World War II. Talking about the middle class is hardly equivalent to discussing social stratification, however. On the contrary, as Gregory Mantsios has pointed out, "Such references appear to be acceptable precisely because they mask class differences."

Some great words of wisdom from the Homelessness Marathon Site, this article was written specific to Katrina, but could be applied to so many places now, Cleveland and Detroit coming immediately to mind:

“If racism is the elephant in the room, the war against the poor is the Tyrannosaurus. Over the past thirty years, we have gone from being a country with surplus low-income housing units to a country with millions of units too few. The housing infrastructure just isn't there anymore to take in the Katrina refugees. It isn't there because America stopped investing in public housing. And America stopped investing in public housing because of a radical political agenda to invest, instead, in the bank accounts of the wealthy. The dead and desperate of the Gulf Coast bear witness to the folly of letting rich people run our country.

"The new homeless and the old homeless are the same. Part of the war on the poor has been the relentless demonization of homeless people as drunks and crazies. That was never an accurate image, note from maryf, as stated above, similar to society as a whole)but it's true that some people put themselves more in the way of homelessness by drinking just as some people put themselves more in the way of it by building beach houses in a hurricane zone. Either way, we are confronted with the same question: Do we wish to be the kind of society that lets people die in the streets -- as they are dying now -- or the kind where we help each other out, no matter what our foibles? We must choose to be a society that lends a hand, and to truly make that commitment, we must do away with the old divide-and-conquer distinctions between poor folks and "normal" people. AS WE HELP THE NEW HOMELESS WE MUST HELP THE OLD HOMELESS TOO.” Click here.

(Be sure to check out the date and time of this worthy radio event at the home page of the Homelessness Marathon.)

So if the old poor and the new poor are basically the same, formed from the same insidious toxic soil of greed and consumerism, why do we discuss old and new poverty as different? For one thing, many think that this is a new problem, that its a different problem, so we have to discuss some of the false perceptions that have arisen. The problem has the same root cause, unbridled avarice; its merely become bigger, as the corporations et al grab more and more of the pie.

It is also the perception of many that the "newly" impoverished are perhaps more "worthy" of consideration and services than the "old" poor. That since everyone has been affected by the recent downturn, those who have suddenly become poor, deserve the most sympathy, "it was not their fault, they had a turn of bad luck." The "old poor" are considered, by many, to have caused their situation, to have made the wrong choices, to have no will power, or to be trying to beat the system, as shamefully exemplified by the infamous chimera of the "Welfare Queen," one of the worst propaganda creations of the Reagan era. The reverse, most reading this already know, is quite false. These old poor are victims of the system in the exact manner that the new poor are. All deserve justice and relief.

When we talk about worthiness we need to ask, what makes a person worthy to have housing, food and healthcare? What makes a person not worthy to have them? Does the length of time of their poverty come into play? Does the fact that they are working or not make them worthy of whether they should be granted the basic human right to basic human needs? When will we recognize this as a ploy to separate us, or, as said in the Homelessness Marathon quote, "we must do away with the old divide-and-conquer distinctions between poor folks and "normal" people." If I may add, the "old" poor folks, the "new" poor folks, the "normal" folks, are all the same folks!!! Please if we don't get this we're truly doomed.

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Mary Finneran is a high school art teacher and lives in Greene County, NY. She is a member of various organizations including Sovereign People's Action Network (SPAN), FrackBustersNY, and Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace. She believes the root (more...)

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