Friday, August 19, 2011

Why Poverty Matters, Part II

What is harder for the nonpoor to see is poverty as acute distress: The lunch that consists of Doritos or hot dog rolls, leading to faintness before the end of the shift. The “home” that is also a car or a van. The illness or injury that must be “worked through,” with gritted teeth, because there’s no sick pay or health insurance and the loss of one day’s pay will mean no groceries for the next. These experiences are not part of a sustainable lifestyle, even a lifestyle of chronic deprivation and relentless low-level punishment. They are, by almost any standard of subsistence, emergency situations. And that is how we should see the poverty of so many million of low-wage Americans—-as a state of emergency.
Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed (2001)

The big question, 10 years later, is whether things have improved or worsened for those in the bottom third of the income distribution, the people who clean hotel rooms, work in warehouses, wash dishes in restaurants, care for the very young and very old, and keep the shelves stocked in our stores. The short answer is that things have gotten much worse, especially since the economic downturn that began in 2008.
Barbara Ehrenreich, Since When Is It A Crime to be Poor? (2011)

Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.
Dorothy Day

On the verge of turning 60, Harper's Magazine journalist Barbara Ehrenreich went undercover to investigate the lifestyles of the working poor. From 1998 to 2000 she worked a variety of "unskilled" jobs and limited her budget to support inexpensive shelter and a "rent-a-wreck" car. Her ensuing book Nickel and Dimed portrayed the lifestyle of millions of Americans who resiliently battle pain, anxiety & shame every day of their lives.

Last week, in her updated aftermath written for the 10th Anniversary of the Nickel and Dimed project, Ehrenreich lamented that if she had attempted to pull off today what she did at the end of the prosperous Clinton years, she would simply not be able to get all the jobs she applied for back in the 90s. Just a few months after she published her book, the Economic Policy Institute issued a report that found 29% of American families living in situations defined as poverty, meaning that they either could not afford or barely afford housing, child care, health care, food and transportation (rendering any entertainment, meals out, cable TV, Internet service, vacations, or holiday gifts obsolete).

Since 2008, impoverished families in the United States have continued their decline. As they get the safety net cut out from under them, they cope by purchasing less expensive (and more unhealthy) foods and get "creative" with how they get it (including "urban hunting," killing squirrels, rabbits and raccoons to barbeque). In addition, they schlep off health insurance options (if they even have them) and crowd into small apartments together (if possible). The last and worst case scenario is suicide which tragically has been on a four-fold rise in the past few years.

Ehrenreich's update goes on to describe the plethora of institutional obstacles (with the exception of food stamps) for individuals and families seeking government assistance. She closed her essay with some general solutions for us to think about:

Ten years ago, when Nickel and Dimed first came out, I often responded with the standard liberal wish list—-a higher minimum wage, universal health care, affordable housing, good schools, reliable public transportation, and all the other things we, uniquely among the developed nations, have neglected to do.

Today, the answer seems both more modest and more challenging: If we want to reduce poverty, we have to stop doing the things that make people poor and keep them that way. Stop underpaying people for the jobs they do. Stop treating working people as potential criminals and let them have the right to organize for better wages and working conditions.

Stop the institutional harassment of those who turn to the government for help or find themselves destitute in the streets. Maybe, as so many Americans seem to believe today, we can't afford the kinds of public programs that would genuinely alleviate poverty—though I would argue otherwise. But at least we should decide, as a bare minimum principle, to stop kicking people when they're down.

Ehrenreich's research and analysis is important for us because she exposes the lie that poor people are just lazy and should get off the couch and get a job. Her work highlights folks who are poor and actually are fortunate enough to have a job (on average, there is only 1 job opening for every 5 people that apply). And to get to action steps, Ehrenreich moves beyond handouts (from both private and public sources) towards a focus on the way the American economic system functions. In short, we need to change the rules of the game instead of apply band-aids.

A program of truly Christian advocacy for the poor ought to follow the 4-step strategy of the South African Dominican monk Albert Nolan:

(1) Compassion stimulated through an experience of exposure

(2) Gradual discovery that poverty is a structural problem (this leads naturally to a constructive anger that recognizes the need to engage social institutions and policies)

(3) The discovery that the poor must and will save themselves (because they know better than we do what needs to be done and how to do it...this illuminates a humble need to learn from the poor instead of teach them)

(4) Recognizing the advantages and disadvantages of our different social backgrounds (we have different roles in our struggle against oppression)

Today, 64% of Americans cannot afford a $1000 emergency, 25 million are unsuccessfully seeking full-time employment and 90% of the folks who have a job are experiencing an increased workload with decreased wages. Meanwhile, US corporate holdings have increased 59% since 2008 and the richest 400 Americans have seen their tax obligations decrease from 30% in 1995 to 18% today.

The United States has (as she always has) a major economic class issue. This is what Robert Bellah laments is "the festering secret that Americans would rather not face." Americans of every class, religion and ethnicity have become dogmatically blinded by The Neocapitalist Vision: a compulsive stress on independence, its contempt for weakness and its adulation of success. More Americans than ever actually believe that privatizing services and deregulating every industry is the answer to every problem. Indeed, the bottom 99% of Americans continue to be flushed down the economic drain as the Establishment ("that uneasy club of business executives, generals, and politicos"--Howard Zinn) gets richer and more powerful.

Poverty in America is a stagnant Reality ("there will always be poor among you"--Deuteronomy 15; Mark 14) because followers of Jesus (still 80% of the US) are catastrophically wedged between 3 myths: (1) privatizing and deregulation gives everyone the best opportunity to succeed economically; (2) poverty is an individual issue (the poor are lazy...the middle-class/wealthy are hard-working); and (3) charitable donations from wealthy individuals and churches are the only answer. These falsities are widely believed and practiced by God's People who were founded on a fundamental convictions of just enough and everyone else.
Epilogue: The American Dream Movement

Check out the Contract for the American Dream here. This movement transcends both major political parties (neither of which are advocating for legitimate policies to end poverty). Here are their 10 steps towards a society of structural justice: just enough and everyone else.

I. Invest in America's Infrastructure
Rebuild our crumbling bridges, dams, levees, ports, water and sewer lines, railways, roads, and public transit. We must invest in high-speed Internet and a modern, energy-saving electric grid. These investments will create good jobs and rebuild America. To help finance these projects, we need national and state infrastructure banks.

II. Create 21st Century Energy Jobs
We should invest in American businesses that can power our country with innovative technologies like wind turbines, solar panels, geothermal systems, hybrid and electric cars, and next-generation batteries. And we should put Americans to work making our homes and buildings energy efficient. We can create good, green jobs in America, address the climate crisis, and build the clean energy economy.

III. Invest in Public Education
We should provide universal access to early childhood education, make school funding equitable, invest in high-quality teachers, and build safe, well-equipped school buildings for our students. A high-quality education system, from universal preschool to vocational training and affordable higher education, is critical for our future and can create badly needed jobs now.

IV. Offer Medicare for All
We should expand Medicare so it's available to all Americans, and reform it to provide even more cost-effective, quality care. The Affordable Care Act is a good start and we must implement it -- but it's not enough. We can save trillions of dollars by joining every other industrialized country -- paying much less for health care while getting the same or better results.

V. Make Work Pay
Americans have a right to fair minimum and living wages, to organize and collectively bargain, to enjoy equal opportunity, and to earn equal pay for equal work. Corporate assaults on these rights bring down wages and benefits for all of us. They must be outlawed.

VI. Secure Social Security
Keep Social Security sound, and strengthen the retirement, disability, and survivors' protections Americans earn through their hard work. Pay for it by removing the cap on the Social Security tax, so that upper-income people pay into Social Security on all they make, just like the rest of us.

VII. Return to Fairer Tax Rates
End, once and for all, the Bush-era tax giveaways for the rich, which the rest of us -- or our kids -- must pay eventually. Also, we must outlaw corporate tax havens and tax breaks for shipping jobs overseas. Lastly, with millionaires and billionaires taking a growing share of our country's wealth, we should add new tax brackets for those making more than $1 million each year.

VIII. End the Wars and Invest at Home
Our troops have done everything that's been asked of them, and it's time to bring them home to good jobs here. We're sending $3 billion each week overseas that we should be investing to rebuild America.

IX. Tax Wall Street Speculation
A tiny fee of a twentieth of 1% on each Wall Street trade could raise tens of billions of dollars annually with little impact on actual investment. This would reduce speculation, "flash trading," and outrageous bankers' bonuses -- and we'd have a lot more money to spend on Main Street job creation.

X. Strengthen Democracy
We need clean, fair elections -- where no one's right to vote can be taken away, and where money doesn't buy you your own member of Congress. We must ban anonymous political influence, slam shut the lobbyists' revolving door in D.C., and publicly finance elections


  1. Hi. :) We should meet soon. I am working out some educational pieces to help move people through the very steps you have indicated related to the education and budget issues as we move forward, which also highlight income disparity etc. I would love to talk to you and Lindsay about it. . . . I know life is really strained because of Lindsay’s dad’s health, but I would love to find a time to do dinner or something because I need feedback, support, insight and help so that we will be most effective in messaging, structure and content. . . .However best we can do that, I would be so appreciative. You guys are a gift, and I am glad to see so many amazing things you are thinking about and blogging about.


    (1) Compassion stimulated through an experience of exposure

    (2) Gradual discovery that poverty is a structural problem (this leads naturally to a constructive anger that recognizes the need to engage social institutions and policies)

    (3) The discovery that the poor must and will save themselves (because they know better than we do what needs to be done and how to do it...this illuminates a humble need to learn from the poor instead of teach them)

    (4) Recognizing the advantages and disadvantages of our different social backgrounds (we have different roles in our struggle against oppression)

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