By: Keith Martin
Whatever happened to poverty? Once upon a time when the Great Society was in full swing, we attempted to wage a war on it. Today it is a one-day news story or, to be more precise, two one-day stories. In September the Census Bureau reported the highest number of Americans living below the poverty line since the bureau started publishing this statistic 52 years ago.
Now, two months later, the Census has released what is supposed to be a new and improved, but unofficial “Supplemental Poverty Measure” (SPM), designed to provide more accurate numbers by taking into account not only cash income but additions and subtractions; for example, food stamps and rental assistance, on the one hand, and payroll taxes and medical expenses, on the other. The cost of living in different localities was also considered as were changes over the years in the types and amounts of family expenditures.
Tragically, the 52 year record remains intact. In fact, under the SPM the number of Americans living below the poverty line actually increases from 46.2 to 49.1 million with the largest jump coming among the elderly, nearly doubling from 9 to 15.9 percent, due to the factoring in of medical expenses.
The almost universal silence among our elected leaders was deafening in September and again this month. Granted, there aren’t many votes to be gleaned from those at the very bottom of our lofty economic ladder, but there are moral issues at stake here that go beyond the ballot box.
Discounting the smattering of countries with populations below 10 million, the United States is the richest country in the world. If our gross domestic product (GDP) was equally divided, it would amount to more than $47,000 for every man, woman, and child in the land. Yet we have between 15.1 and 16 percent of Americans living below the poverty line. The fact that the benefits of our incredibly productive society are the most unequally distributed of any highly developed country on the planet (incidentally, the major cause of the crises on which we are now focusing) only serves to emphasize our lack of generosity of spirit and societal sense of justice.
As they say in the infomercials, “But wait, there’s more.” Splitting the difference between the two reports, approximately one in five of our children lives in poverty. And did someone say “deep poverty”? These are families who try to survive on roughly $11,000 a year, which is less than half the defined poverty line for a family of four. Of the close to 50 million who are poor, about 18 million reside in this netherworld. So, if anything, the all inclusive higher number understates the severity of suffering we allow in this wealthiest of all nations.
In A Liberal Mandate, I tell a story of driving an African-American teenager home after an evening of tutoring at an inner-city program. We stopped in front of his public housing project. He thanked me and then asked, “What project do you live in?” In the same city, in the same country, we lived in entirely different worlds. Was he “officially” poor? I don’t know. Did he have the opportunities this country had every capacity to give him? Absolutely not.
Just over thirty years ago, then newly elected governor of New York Mario Cuomo lamented, expressed hope, challenged us (all of the above?) : “A society as blessed as ours should be able to find room at the table, shelter for the homeless, work for the idle, care for the elderly and infirm, and hope for the destitute.” It seems to me we have been moving in the opposite direction.
Perhaps those legendary “job creators” can remedy the situation.
Keith Martin is a Ph.D. Adjunct Professor at Montgomery College in Maryland and is the author of "A Liberal Mandate: Reflecting on our Founding Vision and Rants on how we have Failed to Achieve it".Back