The False Assumption: Everyone Wants to End Poverty

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The False Assumption: Everyone Wants to End Poverty

(Photo: κύριαsity/flickr/cc)

The debate about income inequality and poverty in America is generally carried out with the underlying assumption that everyone wants to end poverty, and there are well-meaning though different approaches to doing so.

But what if that’s not true? What if the assumption is false? Should we continue carrying on this corrupted debate?   Or should we look for other means to address the scourge of poverty in America?

Even before we examine the issue more deeply, it seems obvious on the surface that there should not be rampant poverty and homelessness in the wealthiest country in the history of the world that has the ingenuity to put a man on the moon, and computers in peoples’ laps.

Two recent reports – one by The New York Times and the other by the Economic Policy Institute – provide convincing evidence that, in fact, if income distribution trends would have remained as they were prior to 1979, the poverty rate in America would have fallen to 0 percent some 10 to 20 years ago.

So why didn’t that happen?

In a recent post on Common Dreams, writer Paul Buchheit argues that the nearly 1 in 2 Americans living in or near poverty are now being treated like expendable and disposable commodities. These are the people whom former presidential candidate Mitch Romney and other financial elites refer to as “the takers” not “the makers.”

If you are a member of the ruling financial elite in this country – and have very little or no contact with people outside of your class and believe that if they are living so poorly it must be their fault – why would you not advocate for disposing of these dregs and drags on your free-market, Machiavellian capitalist aspirations?

That’s not a rhetorical question; it actually seems to be happening.

New York Times columnist David Brooks provided the intellectual rational, such as it is, for the belief that poverty is caused by the poor and not by income inequality when he wrote that we should be focusing on the “interrelated social problems of the poor” rather than the well-documented, siphoning off of the nation’s wealth by the financial elite.

But Buchheit points out some of the ways that the wealthy not only scapegoat the poor in America, but carry out an intentional strategy to exploit them.

These strategies include depleting the wealth of the middle class and working poor. The economic data supports the notion that since the Great Recession in 2008 the amount of wealth owned by the top 1% of Americans has grown exponentially, while the rest of us have gotten less. According to a recent report by the Levy Economics Institute, it’s even worse than that: the richest 10% took 116 percent of the income gains between 2009-2012, with the top 1 percent taking 95 percent. Median wealth, on the other hand, dropped about 40 percent from 2007 to 2013.

Another tactic used to exploit people living on the brink is stripping away their income. According to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), nearly three-fifths of the jobs regained during the recovery (2009 to the present) have been low-wage jobs ($7.69 to $13.83 per hour) – the kind that made up just one-fifth of the jobs before the recession.

Real estate owners are also making housing of any kind unaffordable to most people. As the National Low Income Housing Coalition reports, “In no state can a full-time minimum wage worker afford a one-bedroom or a two-bedroom rental unit at Fair Market Rent.” They also point out that more than one-eighth of the nation’s supply of low-income housing has been permanently lost since 2001. A chilling result of this: more than 600,000 Americans were homeless on any given night in 2013.

What little disposable income a “taker” may have gets fleeced (ironically, taken away) by predatory pay day lenders, rental centers, and assorted fines and fees such as those that bolstered the local economy in Ferguson.

Next, of course, comes criminalization and imprisonment. While no one involved in creating and profiting from the financial crisis – that led to millions of lost jobs and foreclosed homes, and trillions of dollars in lost wealth – went to jail, more low-income Americans are being imprisoned than ever before. And with the privatization of prisons, inmates now often have to pay for their stays (even while awaiting trial).

Even when you ‘play by the rules’ and manage to get into affordable housing, as I did last year, they find ways to make it more difficult for you to maintain the secure foothold you need to work your way up.

A legislative provision in last year’s Farm Bill excludes people from receiving a portion of their SNAP assistance if they do not pay their own utilities separate from their rent. (I found this out when I demanded a fair hearing with Social Services regarding my SNAP benefits.) When you are in affordable housing—or receive Emergency Housing Assistance—you pay one-third of your income for rent, which helps cover the cost of utilities. But you are not billed directly for those utilities, so this new provision allows the government to cut off or significantly reduce your SNAP benefits.

Well, I could go on and on painting this picture of what it’s really like to be stuck in poverty in America, but here’s the main point: Do we go on debating this problem with good faith that both sides are determined to end this gruesome reality, or do we call people out for not only perpetuating the problem, but doing so in order to exploit and profit from it?

In previous articles for Talk Poverty, I’ve called for a paradigm shift—an intellectually violent revolution in which one conceptual world view is replaced by another. I don’t think we can have that intellectually violent revolution until we realize that all sides of the debate are not equally determined or committed to solving the problem of poverty in America. We have to admit this before we can possibly fix the problem.

What exactly do you want, 1%ers? How many more pounds of flesh will it take before you allow the rest of us in America to exist with a modicum of ease and dignity?

James Abro

James Abro is the author of An Odyssey in the Great American Safety Net, a personal memoir of homelessness and recovery. He is the founder of Advocate for Economic Fairness and 32 Beach Productions.  He works locally with faith-based Homeless Outreach groups, and nationally as an advocate for Homeless Rights.  He is a regular contributor to Rebelle Society and TalkPoverty.

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