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US Poverty Data Raise New Questions About Cost of War

Haider Rizvi

NEW YORK - It is one of the most affluent countries in the world, but still millions of people in the United States find it very difficult to put a nice meal on their dinner table.

Nationwide, more than 36 million people, or nearly 13 percent of the total population, lived in poverty last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau report released this week. 0901 06

Among those officially considered "poor," over one third are children, most of them non-white minorities such as African Americans, Latinos, and Asians.

The data reveals continued inequality and concentration of wealth in the United States, with the top 20 percent of households receiving over 50 percent of the nation's income, while the lowest 20 percent got just a little over 3 percent.

"The impact of race, ethnicity, and gender is extremely disturbing," notes Roberta Spivek of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker organization involved in numerous campaigns for economic and social rights.

According to the data, more than 8 percent of non-Hispanic whites, about 10 percent of Asians, over 20 percent of Hispanics, and some 24 percent of African Americans are "poor."

Although the Hispanic poverty rate went down by about 1 percent last year, African Americans and non-White Hispanics are still about three times more likely than whites to be poor.

Single mothers figure among the nation's poor who suffer the most. "Being a single mother has an alarming effect," Spivek noted, reflecting on the gender-specific aspect of the numbers.

The data shows that more than 28 percent of women raising their children without husbands are condemned to suffer from poverty. Those married but impoverished are estimated to be around 5 percent.

The official poverty threshold in 2006, which many experts believe to be too low, was $20,614 for a family of four, about $16,000 for a family of three, around $13,000 for a family of two and a little over $10,000 for an individual.

Last year, according to the census report, about 47 million Americans had no access to health insurance. Once again, official figures suggest that most of those who lack health care are individuals and families from non-white minorities.

In Spivek's analysis, Hispanics, American Indians, and Alaska natives are three times more likely than whites to lack access to medical care.


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Noting that currently the U.S. government spends about $720 million a day on the war in Iraq, Joyce Miller, a human rights activist associated with AFSC, said that amount could buy school lunch for 1 million children.

With that money, according to her, the government could also provide over 400, 000 children with health care.

Recent studies point out that over 23 million Americans seek emergency food each year. According to a study carried out by the California-based Institute for Food and Development Policy, about 13 million American children worry where their next meal is coming from "because their parents do not earn enough to pay for food, rent, heat, health care, and transportation."

The AFSC figures on the Iraq war are based on a statistical analysis done by Nobel Prize-winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes of Harvard University.

Their analysis includes $410 billion in Iraq supplemental funding bills, $160 billion embedded in the Pentagon's annual budget, $290 billion for Iraq veterans' medical expenditures, and $191 billion in interest on the war debt.

"America's shameful poverty rate should lead every one to ask how we want to spend our tax dollars," said Miller, "on war or on education, health care, job training, and affordable housing?"

"Reducing poverty is not rocket science. We can go a long way by investing in education, health care, job training, and housing," she added.

In collaboration with a number of human rights groups, AFSC has led calls for a substantial increase in the minimum wage. It claims to have generated more than 100,000 phone calls to Congress in the last two years.

The phone call campaign helped encourage Congress' passage earlier this year of the first minimum wage raise in a decade. Many groups note, however, that even at the new rate, the federal minimum wage has failed to keep pace with inflation, and today's lowest-wage earning workers are worse off than those who earned minimum wage salaries decades ago.

AFSC and other humanitarian groups are now campaigning to make the minimum wage a true "living wage" and to increase human needs spending in the federal budget. But President George W. Bush has threatened to veto those increases by reasoning that the nation "can't afford it," according to AFSC.

In urging the Congress to adopt the human needs spending bills, the AFSC's Spivek said the nation should spend $720 million a day on ending poverty, not on war.

"It's a question of political will and citizens' action," she added in a statement. "It's a question of redirecting our resources away from war and tax breaks for the highest-income households, towards the common good."

Copyright © 2007

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